Across America this weekend, Jews tired of the vicious presidential campaign reaching its long-awaited end need only to slink into synagogue, plop down in a pew, and take refuge in the Torah. What a respite this Sabbath will provide from the mundane affairs of the outside world! I can almost sense the serenity: no talk of the Bradley Effect and the holdouts of racism in America; no talk of impending economic or environmental doom, no mention whatsoever of the prattling pseudo-experts on cable news networks.
Wait, scratch that.
This week, the Bible is actually more depressing—and eerily more pertinent—than anything you’ll find on TV or online.
Since it may have been a while since many of us pondered the events that unfold in Genesis 6:9 to 11:32, here’s a very brief synopsis: God, furious at the world’s wickedness, instructs Noah, the only righteous dude around, to build an ark, load it with two members, male and female, of every species, and prepare for the flood. Forty very wet days and nights later, the flood finally ends, and God enters into a covenant with mankind, setting all sorts of helpful rules prohibiting murder and cruelty and such and promising, in return, never again to pull off any more diluvian stunts. Noah, thrilled to be on dry land, plants a vineyard, partakes of the wine and, like so many of us at one point or another in life, passes out on his bed, naked and drunk. Ham, his son, sees his father naked, while Ham’s two brothers, Shem and Japheth, refuse to look, covering Noah in cloth instead. Ham is cursed. Fast forward a few years, and the descendants of Noah, feeling frisky, build a very tall tower in a town called Babel. Angry at their vanity and ambition, and wishing, perhaps, that he’d never made that promise about no more floods, God confuses the tongues of men, and instead of speaking one universal language as they had before, the children of Noah now speak in many dialects. What they had there, presaging Cool Hand Luke by a couple millennia, was failure to communicate.
How is any of this relevant to our pre-election week? Ignoring the obvious metaphors—Wall Street as another tower of avarice, say, or the melting of the polar ice caps as precursor to a modern-day flood—this week’s parasha arrives just in time to teach us two very important lessons.
The first has to do with racism, a concept that can often trace its roots to the very Torah portion in question. While Genesis 9: 20-27 makes no overt reference to race, the story as it was told in subsequent centuries and in different cultures painted Ham’s face black, tying together sinfulness and servitude and providing a mighty, divine justification for oppressing the dark-skinned people of the world. As recently as a few decades ago, this so-called “Curse of Ham” was all some white Americans, including some influential ministers, needed to justify slavery and segregation.
Most likely, readers of Nextbook will find such bosh utterly laughable. But as we discuss the Bradley Effect—the concern that potential voters conceal their racial prejudice from pollsters but reveal it come election day—we may do well to remember the Ham Effect: the possibility that racism is resilient because it is effective at manipulating anything to its advantage, succeeding even in cementing a biblical story in which race is never mentioned into a concrete theological base from which to launch a millennia of violent racial assaults. Even if, come November 4, America elects its first black president, we must never assume that the forces that transformed seven verses in the book of Genesis into a divine justification for oppression are done trying.
But if Barack Obama took some time off this Shabbat and dropped by a shul in, I don’t know, maybe Florida, Ohio or Pennsylvania, it is likely that the portion of the parasha that would most appeal to him would be the part that comes later, the bit about Babel and its tower.
After all, a candidate whose political fortunes turned forever as a result of his 2004 Democratic convention speech about a united America would surely revel in a vision of a united humanity. And the son of a Kenyan father and an American mother who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia may find much to regret about the fact that God’s chosen form of punishment was not another flood—promises are promises—but the creation of many disparate tongues, a lingual lashing that kept people separated and confused.
And while the flood usually receives top billing—the disaster to end all disasters—it is, I believe, the tower that’s the real catastrophe. Think about how sad a story it really is: the only time in which we see humanity coming together as one to collaborate on a joint project, and what they choose to do, like Donald Trumps of antiquity, is say “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name.” If this is unity, God sighs, it’s best to keep them apart.
This, of course, is no hopeful message for election week. And as Jon Stewart has so diligently shown us, the descendants of the ancient bickering Babelers are alive and well on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC. But the parasha doesn’t close on this sort of downer: just as the portion draws to an end, at the tail of a long genealogy of Shem’s offspring, it gives us a glimpse of a man who would come to play a very major role: Abraham, who we’re told is already en route with his family to Canaan, the soon-to-be-Promised Land.
And so it goes: from flood to dry and holy land, from curse to blessing, from men losing their common language to the man who will soon find common language with God. In other words, this week’s parasha is about change. And hope. I wonder where I’ve heard those words since.