Contrasting Leadership Models

Three of Bible’s most famous building structures provide parentheses for this Torah portion: Noah's Ark, City and Tower of Babel, Abraham's tent.

Noah's Ark DO NOT USE (photo credit: Avi Kat z)
Noah's Ark DO NOT USE
(photo credit: Avi Kat z)
Three of the Bible’s most famous building structures provide parentheses for this Torah portion. The first, Noah’s Ark, is a life-giving ship, which guarantees the continuity of living creatures on planet earth. The second, the City and Tower of Babel, is a byword for human arrogance and near self-destruction. The third, Abraham’s tent, can be seen as a commentary to these two grander structures.
It might appear that Noah and his ark, the Tower of Babel and Abraham and his tent have little, if anything, in common. Yet the sages link these structures through the figure of one of the more notorious characters to step into these early pages of the Book of Genesis – Nimrod.
Nimrod is a descendant of Cush, Ham and Noah. And even though they lived six generations apart, tradition and legend connects Nimrod to Abraham, too. The sages even gave Nimrod three names – his own, that of Cush (his father) and Amraphel – another king who flourished in Abraham’s time (Breishit Rabba 42:4).
This need by the sages to introduce Abraham into the narrative may not be as fanciful as might first appear. It points to the contrast of leadership models.
First introduced as “a hunter before the Lord” (Genesis 10:6-10), Nimrod is portrayed as the first king in history. The medieval Spanish commentator, Abarbanel, explains how he achieved this eminence: “When people saw his great feats in hunting and killing animals they feared him and venerated him and appointed him their king” (Genesis 10:10). But Abarbanel tells us that Nimrod abused his power.
Whereas formerly there had been complete equality among people, Nimrod began to rule over others. To demonstrate his power he built turreted cities and strongholds. Nimrod was the master of deception and cunning: He even pretended to be God-fearing in order to increase his popularity.
He is also seen as someone who uprooted the “natural way of life,” abandoning God on the way. He is identified as the king who led the people out of Kedem (the pristine source or origin) to settle in the valley of Shinar. There he ordered the building of the city and tower of Babel and pursued trivia, vanity and manufactured objects to satisfy his follower’s superfluous appetites.
It is instructive to compare this megalomaniac with Noah, the hero of the first part of the portion, and with Abraham. Noah was a good man, a tzaddik, according to the opening of the portion named after him. Yet the sages suggest that he was remiss in his leadership qualities, content to save himself and his immediate family but no one else. Abraham, in contrast, was a missionary, as both he and his wife Sarah were “making souls” for the Lord (Genesis 12:5).
Despite the discrepancy in chronology, the sages decide that he and Nimrod actually meet and converse. There are numerous versions of this confrontation, but in each of them, after Abraham has bested Nimrod in arguments, Nimrod orders Abraham to be thrown into a fiery furnace, from which he is miraculously saved (for the most elaborate dialogue, see Breishit Rabba 38).
The structures that these men built reflected their qualities. Noah built an ark that could contain not just himself and his family but also representatives of all living creatures. This undertaking was done with a deep love. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch observed that the scene inside the ark prefigures the days of the Messiah when lion and lamb, wolf and suckling babe will dwell together in harmony. A world that had destroyed itself through profligate sexuality will be repaired by boundless love.
In contrast, the text does not divulge the contents of the Tower of Babel. Perhaps this is meant to suggest that the content did not matter – only the facade, the edifice, was important. Nimrod’s passion was for self-promotion, even if it meant the sacrifice of everyone who stood in his path.
And, as if to emphasize the contrast between Noah and Nimrod, the text goes on to describe how Abraham dwelt in a simple tent (Genesis 18:1), open on all sides so that whoever passed by could be ushered in to enjoy Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality, from whichever direction they hailed.
Nimrod’s end, according to many versions, is violent. He had achieved his enormous political power through his smooth tongue and twisted logic: All he wanted to do, he argued, was to respond to God’s violent act of drowning the entire world in the flood. Yet in so arguing, he also tried to transform himself into a god, to replace the One in Heaven, even fixing a location where people could come and bow down to him (Midrash HaGadol Breishit 11:28). This megalomaniacal impulse was contagious. The builder of Babel was able to lead his peers into an orgy of egoism – “Let us make for ourselves a name.” Everyone adopted Nimrod’s selfishness as his own. They all joined in this great undertaking in order to acquire ‘a name’ for themselves.
While Noah is reprimanded for only looking after himself, Abraham is a leader, a king. Yet Abraham’s “kingdom” is founded on an elevated ideal, free of the force and unprovoked violence that characterizes Nimrod’s hubris. If Nimrod is symbolized by a walled city, Abraham is characterized by an open tent. If Nimrod is the personification of arrogance and cruelty, Abraham is the paragon of altruism and selflessness.
Perhaps in their wisdom the sages realized just how constant is this pattern of leaders who gain power only to lose their purpose. Instead of serving their people, they serve themselves; instead of freeing their subjects, they enslave them. Rather than providing a protective Ark or an open tent, they initiate unrealizable ‘projects’ in the sky, plunging the world into confusion and darkness. Instead of fame, they ultimately reap only ignominy.
This essay was previously published in The Jerusalem Report.