Torah | Words that hunt and words that hurt

 

Noach
Genesis 6:9-11:32
Isaiah 66:1-24

 

With the November elections coming up, I couldn’t help but think of Nimrod as the world’s first political figure. Like a well-run campaign, the Torah offers a biography of this rising star, detailing his background, pedigree and vocation: “Cush [the son of Noah] fathered Nimrod, who was the first man of might on earth. He was a mighty hunter by the grace of God; hence the saying, ‘Like Nimrod a mighty hunter by the grace of God.’ The mainstays of his kingdom were Babylon, Erech, Accad and Calaneh in the land of Shinar” (Genesis 10:8-10). Nimrod’s political powers extended over four kingdoms; most impressively, he ruled over Babylon. He was a general and a man of great might.

The Torah clearly indicates that there was a direct relationship between Nimrod’s gift as a talented hunter and his success as a savvy leader. Indeed, the Torah plainly states that all this was lifnei HaShem — “by the grace of God.” We are even given a rare insight into biblical campaign slogans: “Vote for Nimrod, a mighty hunter by the grace of the Lord.”

A quick review of rabbinic midrash begins to reveal a certain discomfort with Nimrod. One midrash explains that Nimrod wasn’t an animal hunter but a murderer. Not a beloved leader, but a ruthless dictator who would hunt his subjects and have them killed (Beresheet Rabbah 37). Another midrash plays on Nimrod’s unique name. The word “Nimrod” means “let us rebel,” and so Nimrod’s hunting was a form of rebellion, not by the grace of God, but rather against God (Torat Kohanim, Bechukotai 2:2).

Perhaps the most fascinating of these midrashim is the one cited in Rashi’s commentary. He explains that Nimrod “ensnared people’s minds with his speech and misled them to rebel against the Omnipresent” (Rashi on Genesis 10:9).

Rashi argues beautifully that Nimrod wasn’t an actual animal hunter at all. Instead he was a hunter of minds, who held his audience captive (literally!) through his speech. Like many charismatic leaders, Nimrod used his mouth, the power of rhetorical and persuasive expression, to captivate, capture and control the minds of the masses, ultimately using this gift to sway people against the ways of God.

This commentary makes a powerful, though implicit, connection between Nimrod’s coming to power in Babylon through the misuse of speech and the rebellion that occurred at the Tower of Babylon (or Babel) at the end of our Torah portion. That rebellion results in the punishment of the people of Babylon, whose tongues get “all mixed” (Genesis 11:9). Both of these occurrences are rooted in the misuse of language and the power assumed through the use of words. By making this critical link, the Torah and our sages draw our attention to the ease with which we, as humans, confuse substance with form, as well as to the devastating effect that political rhetoric may have on societies and communities.

In truth, each of us, in some way or another and to varying degrees, can become “hunters of minds,” entrapping others with the power of our words. Each of us may have used language to create a false impression, to pressure or persuade, or to forcefully make a weak or unsubstantiated point.

At such moments and times, our sages’ insight is clear. Our actions not only betray our relations with the people we know or love, but like Nimrod, these very actions also reveal a betrayal of God, a form of rebellion against all that is sacred and good.

In a similar vein, relationships and societies based upon false or empty rhetoric will always remain on shaky ground. Like the builders of the Tower of Babylon, whose tower rested on one foot and therefore could be easily destroyed, these relationships, communities or groups will eventually also meet their unavoidable demise.

At its very opening, the Torah powerfully teaches us that the world was created by divine word. In this instance, however, the Torah cautions us that the world can also meet its demise through the misuse of human words. Ultimately, it remains up to us to conjure and imagine what the world could become if only … if only we truly learn how to best use our words.

Rabbi Yonatan Cohen is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley. He can be reached at rabbi@cbiberkeley.org.

Rabbi Yonatan Cohen

Rabbi Yonatan Cohen is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley. He can be reached at rabbi@cbiberkeley.org.