A management audit of the Sedre Noach נֹחַ

My daughter's torah portion for her Bat Mitzvah was from Noach, which is Genesis Chapter .  It is hard to believe that it is 3 years since then, and my sweet, intelligent, considerate little girl has become a, a, a, teenager.

I have always thought of Noach as two children's stories, something to read to one's children (or one's nephews and neices) before bed time, and not really worthy of serious consideration.  A picture of the Western wall as of this moment    One of the reasons why I admire Rabbi Jonathan so much is that he challenged me, as part of my preparation for my daugher's Bat Mitzvah, to review the story and find some meaning in it.  And I did.  Since that time, Noach has become one of my favorite sedres, because it has the first recorded engineering triumph and the first recorded engineering fiasco.  As an engineer, applying scientific knowlege to the solution of practical problems, I want to know why one project succeeded and the other failed.  Failure is instructive

So, let us compare and contrast the two projects from an engineering perspective.  Generally, when auditing a project, we look at things like mission (was the project really doable?), were there cost, funding, or political problems?, was the technology available adequate for the project?  Was the schedule correct, or did they try to get it done too fast, or perhaps not fast enough?  Were they properly organized to accomplish the mission?  For example, the military and the Boy Scouts are organized hierarchically; while the internet is highly distributed: both organizations work.


The Ark

The Tower of Babel


To save all life as we know it from devine disaster

Self agrandizement (Gen 11:4)

cost and funding

No mention of any funding or cost overrun problems

No mention of any funding or cost overrun problems


A very large wooden ship.
There are some limits to the unit strength of wood which suggests that the ark is unseaworthy: long period waves would create stresses in the structure that should cause the ark to break in two.  In fact, the Torah records that a wind blew (Gen 8:1), which would cause long period waves.  Finally, there is no mention of watertight bulkheads, lifeboats, or survival suits.  The only mention of life support ( waste disposal, life boats, survival suits, medical) in food Gen 6:21.  No mention of navigational aids, propulsion.
So the technology is only marginally up to the task.

A large tower made of fired bricks.
Bricks are very strong in compression.  Bricks were also a proven technology.  True, it would be difficult to build a tower much higher than about 9 Km (30,000 feet) high, but there is archaeological evidence that suggests they got no higher than 21 m (60 feet).
So there seem to be no technology problems. (note 1)


Clearly, the job has gotta get done before the rain starts.  Gen. 7.4 says 7 days, but I think that is the time to load all of the animals onto the boat.

No mention of any schedule constraints.


General manger is Noah, working under contract (a covenant) with G-d.  The management team includes Noah's sons, Shem, Ham, and Japeth, and Noah's wife.
From the text, it appears that the management team is well organized, focussed, capable.  However, after the mission is completed, the team breaks down somewhat (Gen 9:20).

There is no clear chain of command, decisions are made by consensus.  At the beginning of the project, things progress fairly well.

What went wrong?

Noah ;x{n has a lack of vision - he sees only his task.  When given his task, he doesn't question his orders, as Abraham will do when G-d contemplates the destruction of Sodom and Gemmorah (Gen 18:24)  Once his task is finished (and he did a brilliant job), he really has nothing to do.  He develops an existential crisis which he deals with by drinking and excessive sexuality.

When G-d confounded their language, the people were no longer able to meet and plan and execute agreements.  Clearly the project failed because of a massive communications failure which caused the organization to cease functioning.

Frederick Brooks, in The Mythical Man-Month, stops at this point, because he wants to make a point about the importance of good communications.  However, I am a Jewish engineer, so I am going to go on a little bit further and discuss the will of G-d.

My experience, based on what I have learned and also on the basis of informal chats with The Almighty, is that G-d can be crystal clear when he so chooses, and cryptic as anything else when he chooses not. So, for example, Moses asks G-d, "what is your name?"  and G-d replies " Eyeh, asher Eyehi " (   i ( אֶהְיֶהאֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה ) which is clear as mud. 
On the other hand, there is a commandment, "Thou shalt not murder" Hebrew
i לֹא תִּרְצָח lo tiryzaḥ. Clear as a bell.
If there is one message that comes through the
Torah loud and clear, it is the demand for social justice. Over and over and over again to the point where it gets monotonous, we are commanded to do The Right Thing.  However, The Right Thing is not beyond our capabilities - we are not expected to have god-like perfection.

The tower of babel by M.C. Escher A copy of this discussion can be found on my website,  This page also includes definitions, links to additional commentaries, and links to translations and online renderings of the Hebrew. The rest of my website is also available for your perusal.

Definitions and descriptions

The words in italics are roman transliterations of hebrew words.  I want to learn how to render hebrew on a web page - the Israelis do it using .GIF files.

Bat Mitzvah (Feminine) or Bar Mitzvah (Masculine)
Literally the son of commandment or the daughter of commandment - it is the rite of passage into adulthood for Jewish children.  Reform and some conservative
Engineering Fiasco
Engineering Triumph
The torah is (informally) divided into portions, one for each week.  But it gets complicated because some hebrew years have 4 or 5 weeks more than others.  The hebrew calendar is pretty cumbersome, but it was the best that could be done given the technology of the day and it works well enough.  Besides, we had our Y2K crises 3700 years ago!  Each portion is called a sedre.  However, a Bar or Bat Mitzvah kid doesn't read an entire sedre (for that matter, seldom do Rabbis), but just a section of it, which is the kid's torah portion.

Additional notes and links

This sermon will be delivered in October, 1999.
This is a picture of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, taken only moments ago and courtesy of  DrawNear ministries.
A commentary by Hillel Halkin with an introduction by (I think) Rabbi Robert Orkland. of Temple Israel, Westport, CT.
Three commentaries from the Rasheit Institute for Jewish Spirituality: Corruption - Rabbi Rami Shapiro;  Noah's Silence - Rabbi David Blumenstein;    Parashah 5758 - Rabbi Rami Shapiro.
This is a painting of the Tower of Babel done by some Israeli web designers, Way Out Web.
The structure is probably unsafe due to earthquakes, but there is no mention of earthquakes.  In other places, G-d causes the earth to open (Deut. 11:6 ) and the earth to stop rotating on its axis (Joshua 10:13 ), so it seems reasonable that G-d could cause an earthquake.  An earthquake would cause a large loss of life, and G-d has other effective means at his disposal to deal with his issues.  In any event, it seems unreasonable to attempt to design against the will of G-d, and even today, Acts of God are a valid defense in tort law.
This occurs is several places, Deut. 5:17, Ex. 20:12, and in Lev ().  However, the translation in the Interlinear bible I am unhappy with.  They translate the word  as "kill" where the JPS bible and the Plaugh commentary translates it as "murder".

The Mythical Man-Month : Essays on Software Engineering
                     by Frederick P., Jr. Brooks Addison-Wesley Pub Co; ISBN: 0201835959 .