This week’s parsha is Noah, but I bet when a lot of you think of Noah, you think of catastrophic floods, or olive branches. But there’s another story that is passed over: The Tower of Babel.
The Torah tells us of a people who journeyed from the east and landed in a place called Shinar. Everett Fox, a biblical scholar, places Shinar in former Mesopotamia, or modern Iraq. The Torah makes a point to tell us that these people had one language. To make sure that they would not be forgotten, the people decided to build a city with a tower. This tower was to serve as a marker for the people, so that they would not be scattered and separated from each other. God then looked down at the city-builders, and said, “Here they are, one people with one language and this is merely the first of their doings-- now there will be no barrier for them in all that they plan to do.”
So what does God do? God confuses their language and turns it into many different ones, so that they can’t understand each other. God then dispersed the people all over the world. For me, as a reader, I have two questions: What went wrong at Babel? Why did God do this?
The ancients who inherited the story of Babel used it as an origin story to explain the emergence of the diversity of language. Even today, we still have no concrete theory as to the origin of human speech. Babel was an example of language used for punishment. But what went wrong at Babel? The first recorded city after Noah’s apocalypse failed, but why?
Let’s examine how others have tried to answer these questions.
Religious author Judy Klitsner in her book Subversive Sequels in the Bible theorizes that the city was the problem, not the tower. She mentions that “the word city...recurs more often than the word tower...God obstructs the building of the city, but makes no reference at all to the tower” (35). From this we can glean that the crime was in the city, not the tower. But the question still remains: what was wrong with the city?
A popular interpretation taught in schools, including the one I learned in first grade, says that the ‘sin’ of the people was their attempt to challenge God. By building a tower, they attempted to spear the heavens and wage war against God. But this view doesn’t include the city, which we have decided was the location of the wrongdoing. However, this explanation is consistent with the narrative held by traditional torah commentators that the Babelites were arrogant. They believed they could challenge God, but they failed, and the lesson is that one shouldn’t be arrogant or proud. In my opinion, this interpretation simplifies the story, distilling it into a basic ‘they were bad, they got punished, we learn their lesson’ type of story. I believe the story of Babel veers away from this arc.
An explanation of the mistake at Babel that appeals to me is that this group of people who were the descendants of the survivors of the flood were overly concerned about their own survival. They wanted to build the tower for the purpose of either holding up the sky, or piercing it to drain the water out. By reducing the water, or stabilizing the sky, there was no chance another flood could happen. This interpretation is more realistic, as it shows how people would react after an apocalyptic event; try not to have another apocalypse. This view was held by the school of Rabbi Shela, and various other midrash teachers. Again, this story focuses on the tower, and is critical of God. A God who wants to halt the efforts of self-preservation and the continuity of the human race would not be a very nice person. It’s interesting to think about how people justify actions like that, and how Rabbi Shela would justify a God who does those things.
The last interpretation I want to share with you is by the Netziv, a famous 19th century Rabbi who believed an incredible story. The Netziv believed that the people who settled Babel were trying to create an ideal society where individuality and nonconformity was erased and replaced with anonymity and homogeneity. These settlers believed that cultural diversity was an evil and should be replaced with cultural uniformity. Babel was supposed to be the capital of the new world, and each city built would be under Babel’s hegemony, and would serve as a smaller clone. The tower was to serve as a watchtower to view the citizens and to be the ‘control’ center of the city.
The Netziv’s interpretation sheds a light on the psychology of 19th century people. The Netziv may have been influenced by Rabbis living in 15th century Spain, right at the beginning of the Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition is a textbook example of forced assimilation and cultural genocide, and influenced the rabbi Obadiah Sforno in his interpretation of Babel. Coincidentally, the Inquisition happened at about the same time as the first colonization of the Americas. The colonization efforts dramatically reduced the population of native people, killing them through disease or murder. The diverse languages and language families of the Natives were lost and forcibly destroyed by the brutal colonists.
Applying this thinking to Babel, we can see how the people, as we established, were under one of the first oppressive societies. The colonists of Babel settled the plain and began to urbanize, like what the Europeans did in the Americas. They all spoke the same language and presumably tried to force it on everyone. The people’s sin was their idea of a perfect world: A world with one culture, one language, and one set of beliefs, with no diversity of opinion, language, or culture.
God destroyed this dystopia by confusing their language.
It’s so much easier to work and live with people who agree and think the same way we do. But the simple reality is that people are different. We need to give people the opportunity to work with people of different beliefs, ideas and perspectives. This is how our tower and city won’t be halted in its tracks.
As a way to do my own version of helping the world as a bar mitzvah, I did a bar mitzvah project. For my mitzvah project, I raised money and ran a race to raise money for SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) research, currently being done in the Robert’s Program at Children’s Hospital. Helping understand the unexplainable death of months old infants is, I think, related to a key part of Judaism: tikkun olam, or fixing the world. We have to do, whenever an opportunity arises, as much good as we can in repairing the world.
Lastly as a way to repay everyone for their part in this day, I want to thank everyone for coming today.
Quiero agradecer especialmente a mi abuelito Humberto, que vino de Bogotá y a la familia que vino de West Virginia y Florida.
I also want to thank my other side of the family, who came from Minnesota, Connecticut, New York, or anywhere else.
I also want to especially thank my Teacher Avi, who helped me so much right up to this day, and Rabbi Penzner, who helped me prepare and made this day special.
I want to also thank my immediate family, Paloma who took an entire aliyah all for herself, and my parents.