October 28, 2011

Most people when reading this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Noach think immediately about the flood, Noah’sArk, and the rainbow of promise from God that the Lord will never destroy the entire world again.  I, however, and am always struck by the story at the end of this week’s parsha about the Tower of Babel.

The Torah tells us that, after the Flood, people moved eastward and settled in the land of Shinar.  They decided to build a city for themselves and a migdal, a tower, that reached up into the heavens.  “Let’s make a name for ourselves,” they said to one another, “or we will be scattered all over the earth.”  Seeing the city and tower they were building, God decided to do what the people had feared.  “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act,” God reasoned, “then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.”  For that reason God scattered them throughout the world and made them speak different languages.  The city where this all took place was named Babel, which means confused or mixed up.  This seems to be an appropriate description of the entire episode which raises several questions.  What was wrong with the people building a migdal, tower?  Would we not be better off if peoples everywhere spoke one language which could have improved communication, and, perhaps, the chances for human cooperation and peace?

Commentators over the years have tried to explain and answer these questions.  As 11th century commentator Ibn Ezra noted, we can find no reason to believe that the people were dim-witted enough to think that their building a tall tower would enable them to encounter God.  Consequently Ibn Ezra’s understanding of the story is significantly different.  He explains that their intent was not to build a tower or fortress, but rather a headquarters.  Their goal was to make a glorious name for themselves by establishing a center for all of civilization.  They thought this center was to become the heart of world society.

Isaac Abarvanel from 15th century Portugal, Spain, and Italy, says that before building the tower, the people had lived at peace with one another, but as soon as they began building, they started to argue bitterly with one another disagreeing over who would do what in the building process.  Rabbi Benno Jacob, a 19th Biblical scholar suggests that those who built the tower failed because their goals were wrong.  He said that the people had mastered the art of brick making, of molding, and heating the clay.  But, instead of using their technology to improve living conditions in their city, to create housing for the poor, sick, and aging, they decided to use their resources and efforts to build the highest tower in the world.  The mistake of the people was using their technology for pride and vanity instead of using it to improve the quality of life in their society.  A midrash in Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer 24 speaks about the fact that the building of the tower and the goal of fame for the community became justification for brutality and the end of individual freedom.  Bricks became more important than individual liberties or lives.

As we can see, the commentators found many important explanations for God’s destruction of theTowerofBabel.  The project produced jealousy and vicious competition, a misuse of technology, and a cruel disregard for the worth of each individual life.  It fostered a false patriNovember otism and, ultimately, threatened the loss of freedom.  Could it be that God actually saved humanity from catastrophe by confusing their language, destroying the tower, dispersing us, and our traditions to all corners of the earth?

Perhaps the real message of this story has to do with helping us understand that our differences in language, culture, and traditions all represent significant strengths and blessings for humanity.  With all of the horrible fighting and disagreements happening in our world today, especially with Israel and the Middle East, I believe we should all look to the end of this week’s parsha and the story of the Tower of Babel to be reminded just how much we should value each and every culture in our attempts to make peace in the world.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham