This week’s portion is mostly the story about the great flood, Noah and his sons. But I am going to speak about the the last nine verses of the portion, which tell the story of Migdal Babel, the tower of Babylon.
We must first recall that God commanded Noah and his sons to scatter across the earth: [Bereshit 9:1] And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth. [9:7] And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply; swarm in the earth, and multiply therein.’
Keep this in mind. We’ll come back to this. Let’s now look at this week’s story:
[Bereshit (11:1-4)] And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another: ‘Come, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said: ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’
After the flood, the descendants of Noah (who all spoke one language) moved eastward and settled in the plain of Shinar, or Babylonia. The settlement of Shinar could be construed as a partial fulfillment of the command to “increase in number and fill the earth”. Yet they decided to all stay in one place and ignore or defy God’s commandment to scatter over the earth. They believed they would have power in numbers. They believed that if they combined their strength they could “make a name for themselves” by building a tower to the sky.
What’s the problem? What was wrong with banding together to collaborate an a great building project? Think about how children naturally work together to build towers from their blocks, or about colleagues working together to construct and sail a raft during a leadership or team-building workshop.
[Bereshit 11:5-6] And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the LORD said: ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; and now nothing will be withholden from them, which they purpose to do.
By the way, the Bible does not say they wanted to reach God, as is commonly interpreted. The intention was to reach heaven (shamayim).
What do towers represent?
Towers are built for command and control. Ancient Babylonian ziggurats, prison watchtowers, even the World Trade Center — are all representations of power and strength. The tower of Babel was an expression of human vanity and selfishness of people wanting to achieve power and greatness. To make a name for themselves (as opposed to God’s naming of all men and creatures in the Bible.)
Their sins had to do with ego and the thirst for power. Because they were so focused on being united and powerful, they didn’t care about each individual human being. If a person fell off the tower while building and died, the others just kept on building because their common goal was the most important thing for them. In their great communal construction project, the people of Babylon were so enthralled with their tools and technological achievement, that they lost of the individuals in their society.
Think about people today — enthralled with cell phones, digital cameras, and materialistic goods, they neglect the natural wonders and beauties of the world.
God could have just toppled the tower and killed everyone, but instead his punishment had a much more profound effect: [Bereshit 11:7-9) Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off to build the city. Therefore was the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth; and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
Communicating is one of the most vital elements of humanity. Having different languages and ways of life can make it hard for people to communicate. It can result in misunderstanding, discord and even violence among people. God’s challenge to humankind, therefore, is for us to learn from each other, appreciate our different cultures, and respect our diverse perspectives.
We need to work to create a society, a world, built upon wisdom and knowledge, on mutual trust and understanding — a society that accommodates and values the differences in our cultures rather than hiding from them in bland, ignorant uniformity.
The key to understanding the story of the Tower of Babel is to recognize anyone can work together to build a tower if they all speak the same language and have the same understanding of themselves and the world.
The real challenge is to achieve that same task when there are literally hundreds of different points of view, hundreds of different ways of expressing it and hundreds of different languages in which they are being expressed.
Our success lies in our ability to acknowledge the value of the contributions of others rather than remaining convinced that we are the only ones with the correct answer.
I believe the strength of our kehila stems from the lesson learned from Babel. Our many languages, culturals, ideas are a result of our different backgrounds and cultures. Together we have joined forces, not to build a tower of power, but to build a spiritual tower that allows us to open our minds and hearts to the other individuals in our community.