In other years we’ve concentrated on the story of Noah and the arc. This year, I thought we’d look at another story in the Parsha.
Babel is that famous place in this week's parasha whose residents tried to build a tower into the heavens. God became furious with them, destroyed their tower, and scattered them throughout the world. If that weren't enough, God also confounded their speech, ensuring that they could never again collaborate on such a project.
According to Dr. Ismar Shoresh, former Chancellor of JTS in NY, “the last mythological fragment we have in the Torah before we come to the figure of Abraham is the Tower of Babel.”
Several features of the story are noteworthy. It is a tale of estrangement. Whatever intimacy Noah may have had with God seems gone. The emphasis is on material things. The inhabitants of Shinar take pride in their ability to compensate for their lack of natural resources. Well-made bricks were just as good as hewn stone, with which they could build an indestructible city and its temple.
The people sought to build a tower to reach heaven.
The story mocks the very idea. To reach God there is no need to ascend to heaven. Twice the narrative stresses that God easily descends from on high. Not construction but contrition is what unites the human and the divine; our inner state rather than a monument is what bridges the chasm.
Rabbi Shoresh writes, “As an instance of rebellion, the Tower of Babel fits the dominant theme of the Torah's prelude to Abraham. Human evil endangers God's creation. Without restraint, man remains an undomesticated animal in the wild. The Rabbis speak of the Torah's mitzvot as a yoke, a system of laws meant to harness human talent for good. As mere earthlings, we are prone to abuse our autonomy. The yoke of the divine helps us gain self-mastery.”
So what was so bad about the Tower of Babel?
The answer lies in the text of the story itself. Hidden in these terse lines are hints that tells us why Babel was so bad that it had to be destroyed. The first clue is found in the beginning of the fourth verse (Genesis 11:4):
"Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth."
In the Hebrew the purpose of the city is especially clear: Havah niveneh lanu. The city and the tower are lanu—for us. This is only for the builders themselves. This is the first mistake the people of Babel make. Their actions are completely for themselves. They do not consider the needs of others in their venture.
The next clue is found in the second part of the same line: The inhabitants intend to build this city and tower "to make a name for ourselves." The people of Babel thought: These physical places will be monuments to our lives. Our names will be preserved in these buildings! But our tradition reminds us of the flaw in such thinking.
In Midrash Tanchuma, our rabbis teach that we acquire three names in our lifetime. The first is the name we are called by our parents. The second it the name other people call us, and the third is the name we earn for ourselves as a reflection of our character, our moral stature, and our goodly and godly qualities. The third name is, of course, the most important. If we were to spend all our time building towers in the hope that they would preserve our names, we would never have time to do those things that contribute to a goodly and godly character – eg. Mitzvot.
Finally, the third error of the Babel-building project is not found in the story itself but in a midrash. This addition to the Torah text suggests that the people became so focused on the tower that they lost sight of the value of human life. "As the tower grew in height, it took more than a year to get bricks from the base to the top. Thus, bricks became more precious than human life. When a brick slipped and fell, the people wept. But when a person fell and died, no one took notice." Can you imagine living in a place where our work means more to us than our friends and family do?
Perhaps that is why God came down to Babel at the end of the story to see the tower before destroying it. Perhaps God couldn't believe that people would be so self-centered and so removed from the divine hope for human kindness and compassion in the world.
Let’s look at some history.
One of the great discoveries of Mesopotamia (along with the wheel, the arch and the calendar) was the ability to manufacture building materials, especially bricks made by pouring clay into moulds, drying them in the sun, and eventually firing them in kilns. This made possible the construction of buildings on a larger scale and reaching greater heights than hitherto. From this came the ziggurat, a stepped building of many stories, which came to have a profound religious significance.
Essentially these towers – of which the remains of at least thirty have been discovered – were man-made “holy mountains,” the mountain being the place where heaven and earth most visibly met. Inscriptions on several of these buildings, decoded by archeologists, refer, as does the Torah, to the idea that their top “reaches heaven.” The largest – the great ziggurat of Babylon to which the Torah refers – was a structure of seven stories, 300 feet high, on a base of roughly the same dimensions (further details can be found in Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis).
According to Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, “Not only is the story of Babel historically precise. It is also shot through with literary devices: inversions, word plays, ironies and puns. One of the most masterly is that the two key words, l-v-n (lamed, vav, nun), “brick,” and n-v-l, (nun, vav, lamed) “confuse,” are precise inversions of one another. As so often in the Torah, literary technique is closely related to the moral or spiritual message the Torah wishes to convey. In this case it is the phenomenon of inversion itself. The results of human behaviour are often the opposite of what was intended. The builders wanted to concentrate humanity in one place (“Let us build a city . . . and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth”). The result was that they were dispersed (“from there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth”). They wanted to “make a name” for themselves, and they did, but the name they made – Babel – became an eternal symbol of confusion.”
We must agree that the greatest creative power is language – the prime example from the first words of Torah (“And G-d said . . . and there was”). It was not a technical problem that caused the builders of Babel to abandon the project but the loss of the ability to communicate. What is holy for the Torah is not power but the use to which we put it, and this is intrinsically linked to language – the medium in which we frame our ideals, construct imaginative possibilities, and call others to join us in realising them. The word is prior to the work.
What, though, was the builder’s sin? The narrative signals this, again, by a series of verbal cues. The first is the phrase with which the episode both begins and ends, kol ha-aretz, “the whole earth.” It begins, “And the whole earth was of one language,” and ends, “from there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.” (The phrase kol ha-aretz appears five times in the nine verses: all three-, five- and especially seven-fold repetitions in a biblical passage signal the presence of a key theme). A framing device of this kind is highly significant.
The second is the phoneme (fonem) (a basic unit of sound) sh-m, either as sham, “there,” or shem, “name.” This appears seven times in the passage. It is clearly linked to the word shamayim, “heaven” – the place the builders attempted to reach in building the tower. The thematic elements of the narrative are thus clear. This is a story about heaven and earth – but in what way? To understand the point at issue we must return to the opening chapter of Bereishith and its description of creation.
Two words in that account are decisive. The first is tov, “good,” which appears seven times. G-d says, “Let there be,” there is, and G-d sees “that it is good.” Creation in Bereishith 1 is not primarily about the power of G-d but about the goodness of G-d and the universe He made. In historical context, this is an extraordinary statement. For the most part, the ancients saw the world as a dangerous and threatening place, full of dangers, disasters, famines and floods. There was no overarching meaning to any of this. It was the result of clashing powers, personified as conflicts between the g-ds.
Dr. Sachs writes, “Religion was either an attempt to assert human power over the elements through magic and myth, or a mystical escape from the world into a private nirvana of the soul. Against this, Judaism made the astonishing assertion that the world is good. It is intelligible. It is the result not of blind collisions and random mutations but of a single creative will. This alone is enough to set Judaism apart as the most hopeful of the world’s faiths.”
There is however another key word, the root b-d-l, (bet, daled, lamed) “to separate, distinguish, divide.” This appears five times in Bereishith 1. The goodness of the universe is itself a matter of order, boundaries and distinctions. G-d separates the different domains (day 1, light and dark; day 2, upper and lower waters; day 3, land and sea) and fills each with its appropriate objects or life-forms (day 4, sun and moon; day 5, birds and fish; day 6, land animals and mankind). So important was this idea to Judaism that we have a special ceremony, havdalah, to mark the end of Shabbat and the beginning of each cycle of “the six days of creation.” Like G-d, we begin creation by havdalah: making, noting and consecrating distinctions.
This too is fundamental to the Judaic world view. Goodness is order; evil is disorder, an act or person or entity in the wrong place. The word chet, sin, comes from a verb meaning “to miss the target.” The word averah, like its English equivalent “transgression,” means to stray across a border, to enter forbidden territory. Many of the chukkim or “statutes” of Judaism are about instilling respect for the inherent orderliness of the universe – and thus not mixing milk (life) and meat (death), wool (an animal product) and linen (a vegetable product) or sowing a field with “mixed kinds” of seed.
Dr. Sacks writes, “Creation itself is seen as the slow emergence of order from chaos. This, as the physicist Gerald Schroeder points out (in Genesis and the Big Bang) is implicit in the Hebrew words erev and boker, “And it was evening (erev) and it was morning (boker).” Erev in Hebrew means an undifferentiated mixture of elements. Boker comes from a root meaning “to reflect, contemplate, seek clarity.” Much recent work in physics, biology and cosmology has converged on the discovery that the birth of stars, planets and life itself is a matter of the slow emergence of ever more complex systems of order swimming, as it were, against the tide of entropy.” I had to look up what entropy means. Here is its definition. (In statistical mechanics, entropy is an extensive property of a thermodynamic system. It is closely related to the number Ω of microscopic configurations (known as microstates) that are consistent with the macroscopic quantities that characterize the system (such as its volume, pressure and temperature). Entropy expresses the number Ω of different configurations that a system defined by macroscopic variables could assume.)
An ordered universe is a peaceable universe in which every form of being, inanimate, animate and human, has its proper place. Violence, injustice and conflict are forms of disorder – a failure to respect the integrity of each life-form or (in the case of humanity, where “every life is like a universe”) each person. That was the state of the universe before the Flood, when “all flesh had corrupted its way on earth.”
This was not an abstract idea. The world of myth, against which Judaism is a sustained protest, was one in which boundaries were not observed. There were human beings who were like G-ds and G-ds who were like human beings. There were strange mythological hybrids – like the sphinx, half human, half animal. Religious ecstasy was often accompanied by a ceremonial breaking of boundaries in various ways. To the Judaic mind this is paganism, and it is never morally neutral. G-d creates order; man creates chaos; and the result is inevitably destructive.
The most fundamental boundary is stated in the Torah’s first sentence – that between “heaven” and “earth.” Never before or since (except among religions or cultures influenced by Judaism) has G-d been conceived in so radically transcendent a way. G-d is not to be identified with anything on earth. “The heavens are the heavens of the Lord,” says the Psalmist, “but the earth He has given to man.” This ontological divide is fundamental. G-d is G-d; humanity is humanity. There can be no blurring of the boundaries.
That was the sin of the builders of the tower. Their aspiration (to “reach heaven”) was laughable, and indeed the Torah makes a joke of it. They think that their construction – three hundred feet high – has reached heaven, whereas G-d has to “come down” to look at it (in general, the one thing that makes G-d laugh in the Torah is the pretensions of human beings when they think of themselves as like the G-ds). However it was worse than laughable. The Netziv (R. Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, 1817-1893), writing in Czarist Russia and prophetically foreseeing the worst excesses of communism, sees Babel as the world’s first totalitarianism, in which to preserve the masses as a single entity, all freedom of expression is suppressed (that, for him, is the meaning of “the whole world had one language and a unified speech”). Intoxicated by their technological prowess, the builders of Babel believe they had become like G-ds and could now construct their own man-made miniature universe. Not content with earth, they wanted to build an abode in heaven. It is a mistake many civilizations have made, and the result is catastrophe.
In modern times, the re-enactment of Babel is most clearly associated with the name of Nietzsche (1844-1890). For the last ten years of his life, he was clinically insane, but shortly before his final breakdown he had a nightmare vision which has become justly famous:
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly, “I seek G-d! I seek G-d!” . . . “Whither is G-d? he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers . . . G-d is dead. G-d remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves? What was holiest and most powerful of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? . . . Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become G-ds simply to seem worthy of it?”
As George Steiner pointed out (in his In Bluebeard’s Castle) there was less than three-quarters of a century between Nietzsche and the Holocaust, between his vision of the murder of G-d and the deliberate, systematic attempt to murder the “people of G-d” (Hitler called conscience “a Jewish invention”).
When human beings try to become more than human, they quickly become less than human. As Lord Acton pointed out, even the great city-state of Athens which produced Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, self-destructed when “the possession of unlimited power, which corrodes the conscience, hardens the heart, and confounds the understanding of monarchs, exercised its demoralising influence.” What went wrong in Athens, he writes, was the belief that “there is no law superior to that of the State – the lawgiver is above the law.”
Dr. Sachs tells us that “Only when G-d is G-d can man be man. That means keeping heaven and earth distinct, organising the latter only under the conscious sovereignty of the former. Without this there is little to prevent human beings from sacrificing the many for the sake of the few, or the few for the sake of the many. Only a respect for the integrity of creation stops human beings destroying themselves. Humility in the presence of Divine order is our last, best safeguard against mankind arrogating to itself power without restraint, might without right. Babel was the first civilization, but sadly not the last, to begin with a dream of utopia and end in a nightmare of hell. A world of tov, good, is a world of havdalah, boundaries and limits. Those who cross those boundaries and transgress these limits make a name for themselves, but the name they make is Babel, meaning chaos, confusion and the loss of that order which is a precondition of both nature (the world G-d creates) and culture (the world we create).”
So how does this story and its meaning impact our relationship with G-d today?
What parallels can we draw from this story to our own lives?
Some thought starters:
This from Rabbi David Segal, spiritual leader of the Aspen Jewish Congregation.
“God doesn't simply hate buildings, even grand ones. The Israelites in the desert built the Tabernacle in painstaking detail; King Solomon oversaw the Temple's elaborate construction in Jerusalem. But certain works of human hands elicit God's wrath, the Tower of Babel and the Golden Calf among them. Divine approbation of human building hinges on intention. It's not the technology itself, but how we use it that determines God's response.
The trouble begins when we let technology—the works of our hands—undermine our values and eclipse our humanity.
The builders became so obsessed with their technology that a wasted brick mattered more to them than a human casualty. More than merely misguided, they were morally backward.
We tend to tell ourselves that we, unlike the Babel builders, would never let our love of technology cloud our moral compass. But we are wrong. Take smartphones, for instance. According to one study, texting and driving is now a leading cause of death among teenagers—causing more deaths than those resulting from drinking and driving. The thrill of pinging a friend or posting on Facebook outweighs the very real risk of causing a fatal crash. We are not so unlike the Babel builders, after all.
There are less dire ways, too, that we let technology lead us astray. On subways and sidewalks, in cafes and conversations, people bury their faces in a device. There is less time to relate and interact, not to mention time to be alone with one's thoughts and no other distractions.
It all comes back to the questions of intention and balance. Technology is supposed to be our tool, not our ruler. We ought to leverage it to connect in ways we otherwise couldn't, to teach and to innovative more efficiently, and to solve global problems like poverty and disease. We are supposed to use technology to enhance human life, not let our addiction to it pull us away from what matters most. God commanded the Israelites to build the Tabernacle as an antidote to the Golden Calf, because the collective effort with an elevated purpose would reorient them to God's Presence in their community. God allowed King Solomon to build the Temple because Solomon was a seeker of peace whose handiwork would manifest God's grandeur in the world.”
So now, let’s talk about how your personal relationship with G-d is intensified or reduced by the story of the Tower of Babel. How does the story impact on your idea of G-d? How do you feel towards G-d after reading this story? Who wants to go first?