Immediately before the story of Noah and a corrupted world, the Torah makes a passing mention of the Nephilim, powerful giants who lived at that time.
“The Nephilim were on the earth in those days.... They were the mightiest ones ever, men of renown.” (Gen. 6:4)
Who were these titans? Why does the Torah call them Nephilim?
The Midrash explains that they were called Nephilim because they fell (naphlu) and brought about the world’s downfall (nephilah). These giants were the catalysts for society’s great moral collapse.
In 1906, fifteen-year-old Tzvi Yehuda Kook, Rav Kook’s son, asked his father whether he should devote time to learning other languages. In his response, Rav Kook analyzed the relative importance of expertise in languages and rhetoric:
“We should aspire to help others, both our own people and all of humanity, as much as possible. Certainly, our influence will increase as we gain competence in various languages and speaking styles.... But if perfecting these skills comes at the expense of analytic study, then this will reduce the true intellectual content of one’s contribution to the world.”
Some people mistake proficiency in many languages for intellectual greatness. This is not the case. Linguistic talent is merely a tool. Genuine perceptiveness and intellectual insight are a function of how well one has established the foundations of one’s own inner integrity.
To demonstrate his point, Rav Kook noted that the great Nephilim who brought about the world’s moral collapse were anshei shem. Usually translated as ‘men of renown,’ this phrase literall or ‘men of words.’ They were great leaders, skilled in the arts of persuasion and rhetoric. But their talents were an empty shell, devoid of inner content. On the contrary, they used their eloquence for unscrupulous purposes.
It is interesting to contrast the Nephilim and their highly developed oratorical skills with the individual responsible for bringing the Torah’s teachings to the world, Moses. The highest level of prophecy was transmitted through a man who testified about himself that he was not a man of words, but “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” (Ex. 4:10). Moses was not talented in rhetoric and lacked confidence in his communication skills. Nonetheless, his moral impact on the world is unparalleled in the history of humanity.
In these pre-Messianic times, Rav Kook wrote, when we must wage battle against ideological foes who attack all that is holy to us, we should look to King David for inspiration. David was untrained in the art of war and refused to wear the heavy armor that King Saul presented to him. Rather, he gathered five smooth stones from a stream. The five stones are a metaphor: David utilized the teachings of the Five Books of Moses to wage battle against Goliath and his blasphemy.
We should emulate David and not invest too much time and effort acquiring the tools of ideological warfare. Like the young shepherd who took up a simple slingshot in his fight against Goliath, we should not totally eschew the implements of rhetoric, but realize that David’s victory over the blasphemous Philistine was achieved due to the purity of his charge, “in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel” (I Samuel 17:45).
Eloquence and elocution are but tools. They may be used for nefarious purposes, like the corrupt Nephilim, or for conquering evil, like David. Ultimately, it is not the medium but the message that counts.
(Sapphire from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Igrot HaRe’iyah vol. I, pp. 29-30)