Rabbi Oury Cherki
Noah - From Families to Nations
Groups of people are defined by some common unifying factor. When the criterion changes the communal identity also changes, and the name of the group might change too. In this week's Torah portion, the title "families" is followed by the title "nations." "These are the children of Shem according to their families and their languages, in their lands and by their nations" [Bereishit 10:31]. There is a very clear difference between the two terms. Different families can be expected to live in peace with each other, and war is the exception to the rule. The political nature of a nation, on the other hand, tends to be characterized by traits similar to those of individuals. "Strangers" are treated as being external to the national solidarity and as a threat and therefore as potential enemies. The normal relationship between different nations is a state of war, while peace is so unusual that the prophet views it as noteworthy: "No nation will lift up a sword against another nation" [Yeshayahu 2:4]. What is the source of this difference in outlook? The verse quoted above implies that when a group is defined by cultural factors – by "their languages" – it can be characterized as a family, but when the group is defined by territory – "in their lands" – the entity is a nation.
In reaction to the downfall of humanity from families to nations, two experiments were attempted to solve the problems of waging war: the Tower of Babel and the choosing of our Patriarch Avraham. The first attempt was a failure, and the second one was the ideal solution.
The Tower of Babel was an attempt to cancel out the differences between different people – the people had "one language" [Bereishit 11:1]. The word used is "safa" – a language - and not "lashon" – a tongue. Lashon is related to internal or spiritual content, while safa is external. The attempt was a cosmopolitan approach, which destroys individuality, eradicating the intrinsic value of a human being and replacing it by a shared human project, the Tower. However, Divine revelation not only doesn't blur individuality, it enhances its unique characteristics, so much so that people can no longer understand the language of others. And in this way humanity was rescued from the hell of absolute uniformity.
To make up for the complete failure of the Tower of Babel, Avraham arrives with his mission. He does not try to cancel out the concept of nationality but rather to bring the nations back to their former status as families. This can be accomplished only by establishing a new type of nationality, "a great nation" [Bereishit 12:2], whose sole purpose is to remove the idea of nationality and to bring humanity back to the status of families: "And all the families of the earth will be blessed through you" [12:3]. This means that the nation of Yisrael is the only legitimate national entity, because - as opposed to that of the other nations - its purpose is to mend the faults of the world.
The future ideal in the prophecy of Zecharia is that "all who remain among all the nations which invaded Jerusalem" [14:16] will become families. "Those who do not come from among the families of the earth... and if the family of Egypt will not come" [14:17-18]. Thus, instead of cosmopolitanism which insists on uniformity, and instead of nationalism which has taken over the nations of the world, unity will reappear. This will lift up all the nations, each one with its own unique traits, "to the Mountain of G-d, the House of the G-d of Yaacov. He will teach us of his ways and we will go on his path, for the Torah will emanate from Zion and the word of G-d from Jerusalem." [Yeshayahu 2:3].