Noach 5780

October 30, 2019

Unity

Late June 1976; passengers boarding Air France flight 139 discover it is now stopping in Athens en route to Paris. Some, like George and Rivka Karfunkel don’t want to board; Athens airport was renowned for its terrible security; indeed it was from this very airport a plane was hijacked in 1970. But their luggage is already on board so they board as well…

In Athens, two Germans join the flight: Brigitte Kulma, and Willie Burs along with two Arabs who are connecting from Bahrain. There was no security inspection for transit passengers in Athens so they were able to board with the weapons they brought from Bahrain… The two Germans were members of Baader Meinhof and the two Arabs were members of the PFLP (Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine), an organization founded by Wadi Hadad, who broke off from Yasser Arafat whom he did not consider radical enough … he was the same individual who masterminded the Maalot massacre in 1972 when 22 children were murdered.

Five minutes after takeoff they hijacked the plane, refuelling in Benghazi and eventually ending up in Kampala, Uganda, in the old airport terminal. (The new terminal continued to service flights throughout the affair…)

One hundred and ten Ugandan soldiers guarded the old terminal including the guard towers, to protect the terrorists. The terrorist gave a deadline: on July 1, if their demands were not met they were going to start killing hostages. Almost immediately, while still in Benghazi, the terrorists began calling out names; it did not take a genius to quickly figure out what they were doing: not thirty years after the Holocaust, German terrorists were separating the Jews … ninety three Jews and Israelis were separated and, along with the crew who refused to leave, were taken to Uganda.

Yitzchak Rabin who was Prime Minister, upheld Israel’s policy of not negotiating with terrorists, and eventually approved the mission, led by Yoni Netanyahu to fly thousands of miles, through enemy territory, to rescue the hostages and bring them home.

There is a legend about Yoni Netanyahu; just before boarding the planes and beginning radio silence he gathered his men, Israel’s most elite commandoes, and tried to put into words why they were doing what they were about to do, risking everything for people they did not even know, many of whom were not even Israelis. Simply put: ‘… we may not know who they are but they are our brothers and sisters, and we are going … because if we don’t go no-one will.”

A moment that recalls the well-known Jewish axiom: Kol Yisrael Areivim zeh ba’zeh: All Israel (i.e. every Jew) is responsible for (literally ‘mixed in’ with) every other Jew. Ultimately, we are all one.

Achdut: Unity; a powerful idea, which cuts to the core of what the Jewish people are all about. And ultimately it’s not only about Jews; we are meant to be a model for the world of what brotherhood and unity is all about. What could be more beautiful than true unity, when we all put aside our differences in deference to something greater than ourselves?

This week’s portion, Noach, however, seems to suggest otherwise:

 

Everyone knows the story: the world created with such hope and light has sunken into idolatry and violence, to such a degree that there is no longer a point to its continued existence. After all, if G-d and G-dly ethics no longer matter, then we no longer matter. So G-d brings a great flood that destroys the world and pushes the ‘re-start’ button with Noach; the world gets a second chance.

Yet, later in the portion it looks like humanity is about to make the same mistake. Deciding to build a city and a monstrous tower, our Chachamim tell us they were going to war with no less than G-d Himself!  Only this time, despite the fact that all of mankind seems united against G-d, the world is not destroyed; why? Why this time does G-d spare the world?

Of course, one might suggest that G-d promises he will never bring another flood, but technically, G-d has no shortage of options; if you don’t want to destroy them with a flood; explode them with fire!

The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah) suggests that what saved the builders of the Tower of Babel was that they were unified (Bereishit 11:1), and unity is a good thing which is beloved before G-d, so they were spared.

I had always imagined that the Torah was describing an idyllic society that had learnt from the mistakes of the generation of the flood. The generation of the flood had no respect for one another, they stole, they murdered, they were promiscuous – thus they were destroyed. The generation of Migdal Bavel learnt the lessons of the past, they were united, and they were together – so why were they punished, why were they dispersed?

There is a comment by Rashi that has always puzzled me. When the verse describes the reality in Bavel after Hashem changed the one accepted language into many differing languages.

Rashi describes a scenario where if two men were involved in a specific area of the building project, one would ask the other for a specific material, the other now not being able to decipher his fellows request, handed him the wrong material, as a frustrated reaction the one man killed the other (literally – smashed his head).

If we accept the premise that the people were totally united, that they had learnt their lessons from the previous generations, then surely the fact that they could not understand each other temporarily, would not bring on such a violent response?

It is quite possible that Rashi in this comment is alluding to the fact that the unity as described at the beginning of the Chapter was superficial to say the least. There were public statements of unity, of caring, and of oneness, but when put to the test, when in times of trouble, the unity of the people disintegrated into the violence of the previous generation.

Hashem dispersed the people to teach them that real unity is not defined by superficial acts and popular clichés. Two people can be separated by hundreds of miles, yet have more care and love for each other than next-door neighbours.

It is for this reason that after the dispersion the Torah focuses on Avraham and eventually the building of Am Yisrael. We realise that external unity will only be true unity, if we follow the path of Avraham serving G-d, internalising the inherent values of Torah, and applying them to our everyday lives.

We are the “smallest amongst nations”; nevertheless we remain a strong united nation both internally and externally. No matter where we live in the world, we are all brothers and sisters.