Some years back, I was studying with a woman who was considering converting. We were talking one day when I asked her if she knew about Maimonides' 13 Principles of the Jewish Faith. She shook her head indicating that she had not, but I noticed that her face dramatically changed when I asked the question. I grabbed two prayer books and we read through the Yigdal prayer, which is adapted from the 13 Principles.

She was visibly disappointed that Judaism had a list of beliefs too!By the time we were finished, she was weeping. When I asked her what was wrong, she explained that she was so drawn to Judaism because of its stress on action and deed, not thought; its focus on mitzvot, not on heaven and heresy. She began recalling to me her experiences in religious parochial school where she was chastised for possessing beliefs not in consonance with that being taught. She was called names because of her "apostasy." Her impetus to join the Jewish people was to get away from that and now she was visibly disappointed that Judaism had such a list of beliefs too!

Thank G‑d, this woman got over her concerns, converted, married and is now running and raising a beautiful Torah family.

When we think of the Torah reading of Noach, we immediately associate it with Noah and the Ark, the Flood, the dove, the rainbow. But towards the end of the reading, while presenting the genealogy of the ten generations between Noah and Abraham, the Torah confronts us with some cryptic verses that illustrate the sin of the dor haflagah, "the Generation of the Dispersal"—more widely known as the ones who built the Tower of Babel.

We are told that the inhabitants of the post-diluvian world were united.

Behold, the whole earth was of one language and of unified words—Genesis 11:1.

Sounds benign! But a few verses later, we learn that G‑d comes down to this city, obviously does not like what He sees, and mixes up their vernaculars, disrupting the entire project.

What were they doing that was so untoward? What is wrong with building a tower and a city?

Rashi, based upon the Midrash, offers three explanations.

They came with one plan of action. They said, "G‑d does not have the right to select for Himself the higher realms. We will go up to the firmament and wage war with Him. Alternatively "unified words" means words against the Unique One of the world. Alternatively, "unified words" means that they said, "Once in 1,656 years the firmament collapses as it did in the days of the Flood.1 Come let us make supports for it!

By reading the story and seeing how it ends, it becomes obvious that these people did something wrong. These three approaches adapt the text slightly to make their conclusions.

The creation of the Tower was in one way or another, a challenge to G‑d's sovereigntyThe first interpretation understands the verse's reference to "unified words" as a unified attempt to arrange a coup d'état against G‑d. The second view, somewhat similar to the first, sees "unified" as referencing He Who is One, i.e. G‑d. But instead of focusing on the unity of their diabolical purpose, the second view says that their unity was not as important as the goal of confronting the One and Only. The third opinion bases its interpretation on a play of words. The Hebrew words for "unified words" are dvarim achadim, which is closely related to the words dvarim chadim, "sharp words"—words that challenge G‑d.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 109a) also has its discussion suggesting reasons for their downfall, even suggesting that the "unified" attempt was actually the work of different factions, each with a different reason for building the tower (and each punished accordingly).2 The Talmud concludes its discussion by saying: "Rabbi Natan said: All the groups, however, had idolatrous intentions."

What is the common denominator between all the various positions? The creation of the Tower was in one way or another, a challenge to G‑d's sovereignty and/or providence.

Different Generations; Different Challenges

Rabbi Meir Shapiro (1887-1933) – the visionary who founded the Daf Yomi (studying one folio of the Talmud per day) movement and the leader of the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva – made a fascinating comment, differentiating in broad strokes the sin of the generation of the Flood and that of the Generation of the Dispersal. He does so by comparing and contrasting two verses:

Noah was a righteous and perfect man in his generations—Genesis 6:9.

For I see in you a righteous man in this generation—Genesis 7:1.

In the first verse, Noah is described as a tzaddik ("righteous") and tamim ("perfect") man in his generations (plural). In the second, G‑d tells Noah that he is a tzaddik (but does not mention tamim) in this generation (singular).

Rabbi Shapiro differentiates between the two terms: A tzaddik is one who refrains from sinning, someone in control of his urges and inclinations. A tamim is someone whose thought process is perfect, his philosophy in-line with G‑d's (see Rashi on Deuteronomy 18:13).

Noah remained true to G‑d during both erasNoah lived two eras, that of the Flood and also the Generation of the Dispersal. The sin of the former era was thievery and immorality, activities of commission. The downfall of the latter was in their desire to challenge G‑d's running of the world. In the first verse, which describes Noah in general, he remained true to G‑d during both eras: therefore he is labeled a tzaddik and a tamim. In the second verse, describing Noah specifically during the period of the Flood, he is only described as a tzaddik—for at that time there was no theological challenge.

"Perfectly Righteous"

It behooves us to think of ourselves as Jews with two missions: to observe the mitzvot, and to try to synch our thinking and build our belief system with that taught in the Torah.

As evidenced by my experience with the prospective convert, theology can at times be more challenging than keeping Shabbat, avoiding non-kosher food and the other mitzvot that govern our lives. We too are challenged by our faith system.

Our sages presented varying versions of the vice of the Generation of the Dispersal. It could be as benign as worrying that another flood would deluge the world (not trusting G‑d's Rainbow Covenant) and therefore taking precautions such as building stilts for the heavens or slowly draining the water from the heavens with axes. Others argued that their sin was intending an all out war against the Almighty, or wanting to worship idols.

I won't speak for all of us, but I know that I need constant strengthening in the areas of belief and trust. We see events in our personal lives, in our communal lives and in the world around us that cause us to question, to challenge and yes—sometimes to doubt. Doubting is part of the process of faith. We don't need to get an A+ in doubt, but we are human, we struggle and we doubt.

Tzaddik and tamim must go hand in hand. Without our faith, our actions have less meaning. Faith without action may be vacuous. The goal for all of us is to be a tzaddik tamim—one who does and believes.