Rabbi Mordechai Willig
Peleg and Yoktan: Dispersion and Redemption
"To Eiver were born two sons. The name of the first was Peleg, because in his days the world was divided. The name of his brother was Yoktan" (Bereishis 10:25). Eiver was a prophet and named his son after a future event, namely the dispersion (haflaga) which took place at the end of his days (Rashi ad loc). Yoktan was humble and made himself small, and merited to have thirteen sons. This, too, was prophesized by Eiver (Rashi, Sifsei Chachomim, ad loc).
Chizkuni cites Bereishis Raba (37:7) saying that the ancients, who possessed ruach hakodesh (divine inspiration) named based on events. He interprets "divided" differently than Rashi and explains that from Peleg and on human longevity was "divided", i.e. halved. Until Peleg, man lived over four hundred years, and afterwards only over two hundred years (See Bereishis 11:10-32).
Seforno adds that the reason lifespans became shorter was the sin of those who built the Tower of Bavel (11:2), which he (11:4-6) identifies as idolatry. He views reduced longevity as a punishment, whose natural cause was the sudden climate change of the dispersion.
The Kli Yakar (11:1,6) connects the story of the dispersion to the Mishna (Sanhedrin 71b) which states, "The dispersion of the wicked is good for them and good for the world." If wicked people are gathered in one place, they conspire to hurt others. Moreover, they fight with each other. Each has a different desire (e.g. wealth, honor, food, women). Worse, each wants to rise above the others. This trait affects most Jews as well (B'rabas b'nai ameinu, a play on Devraim 3:11, used by the Kli Yakar (Devarim 2:4) regarding the related habit of ostentation).
The people of the Dor Haflaga initially lived in peace, with one language (11:1). They feared that they would be dispersed and planned to build a city and a tower to keep them together, as all people like to live in big cities (11:4). The problem with this plan was the phrase "Let us make a name for ourselves".
Hashem realized that since their motive was to make a name for themselves, each person would want to rule over, and be higher than, the others. This would lead to internal wars. The gathering of the wicked is bad for them, as explained above. Hashem said (11:6, a statement, not a question as Rashi interprets), "I will preserve the peace by dispersing them, which is good for them and for the world."
There can never be peace between those who want to make a name for themselves. The people of our nation prove it. How lowly is this trait. It destroyed the Bais Hamikdash twice, and delays the building of the third Bais Hamikdash, until Hashem will remove from our midst those who exult in arrogance. The remaining humble and poor people will take shelter in the Name of Hashem (Tz'fania 3:11,12).
The Kli Yakar's powerful conclusion contains a timeless lesson. He associates war and destruction with arrogance, and peace and redemption with humility. Yoktan was humble and blessed with many children, Peleg represents the dispersion that took place when he died. As the opposite of Yoktan he may have been arrogant and childless. The sin of the Dor Haflaga, according to the Kli Yakar, was arrogance, not idolatry as Seforno understands.
According to the Midrash Tanchuma, cited by Rashi (11:1) and Kli Yakar (11:6), they said, "G-d does not have the right to select for Himself alone the higher realms. We will go up to the sky and wage war with Him." This is the epitome of arrogance and heresy.
The Midrash Raba (38:6, cited by Rashi 11:9) asks: Which sin was worse? The generation of the flood, that did not attack G-d, but merely distanced themselves from Him, or the generation of the dispersion, which attacked Him? Clearly the latter. Why, then, was the generation of the flood destroyed while the generation of the dispersion was spared? The Midrash answers: The generation of the flood were thieves and there was hostility between them, and, therefore, they were washed away. The generation of the dispersion behaved with love and friendship among themselves, and, therefore, were spared. Rashi concludes, "we learn that dispute (machlokes) is hated and peace (shalom) is great." The Midrash adds that even if Yisrael worships idols, if there is peace between them Hashem does not punish them, as it states (Hoshea 4:17), "Ephraim is attached [as one group], let him be [even if they are attached to their idols, as per the literal translation]."
Furthermore, the evil deeds of the generation of the flood are explicit (Bereishis 6:2,11), while those of the generation of the dispersion are not. Since they sinned only towards Hashem but loved each other, their shameful behavior was not revealed in the Torah (Radal).
A similar contrast is found (Vayikra Raba 26:2) between the generation of Dovid and that of Achav. In Dovid's time, the youth were very learned and righteous. Nevertheless, they fell in battle because of their interpersonal sins. But Achav's idolatrous soldiers were victorious since they behaved properly towards one another.
Unfortunately, inappropriate infighting, even among the very learned and righteous and their adherents, continues until this very day. The Netziv (Meishiv Davar I, 44) attributes the destruction of the second Bais Hamikdash to the baseless hatred (Yoma 9b) of finding minor sins in others and branding them heretics. This led to the bloodshed mistakenly viewed as permitted and even commanded by the Torah. The Netziv bemoans the fact that, in his time, one observant Jew sees another who does not serve Hashem in the same way as he (al pi darko ba'avodas Hashem) and views the other as a heretic. He distances himself from the other, and they pursue (rodfim, i.e. attempt to harm) one another based on false imagination, and all of Hashem's nation can be destroyed, chalila (Heaven forfend).
Our tradition teaches that we are unable to attribute personal tragedy to specific causes with certainty. Nonetheless, ba'alei mussar have quietly noted that some protagonists in bitter disputes within yeshivos two generations ago, even very learned and righteous, suffered from early morbidity, mortality or childlessness.
When the Ramban reported his findings in Eretz Yisrael, he wrote that the holier the place, the more destroyed it was (kol hamekudash mechaveiro charev mechavero). The same can, unfortunately, be said of destructive disputes within some legendary Torah institutions and movements in the Holy Land today. In America, unfortunately, bitter and acrimonious disputes continue within major Chassidic sects.
The certainty that one's way serving of Hashem is the only legitimate one, bemoaned by the Netziv, continues to plague us. The arrogance of the Dor Haflaga, linked by Rashi to Peleg, must be avoided. As the Kli Yakar taught, the desire to raise oneself at the expense of others caused the churban and delays the ge'ula. Only by emulating the humility of Yoktan can we be blessed personally with successful families and hasten our long-awaited national redemption.