The Tower of Bavel, the first community project. Where did it go wrong?

Tension between humanity’s desire for total independence and submitting to God’s control plays out throughout human history.

Rabbanit Shira Smiles ,

Learning Torah
Learning Torah
Orthodox Union NCSY

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Parshat Noach relates the first endeavor at a community project. All speaking the same language, the people said to each other, “Come, let us make bricks… Let us build a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves lest we be dispersed across the whole earth.” Hashem was not in favor of the plan. Hashem’s course of action was to confuse their language so that the people would not understand one another.

Rabbi Yanky Tauber asks the question that will help us develop The Inside Story. This undertaking was a unifying project with a common goal of survival. The tower itself would act as a lighthouse to guide people back to the city who may have gone too far astray. Where did the builders go wrong? Why did Hashem see fit to keep the vision from being fulfilled?

Rashi begins shedding light on the motivation of this generation, a generation not far removed from the flood. Focusing on the projected height of the tower and the one, singular purpose, the people wanted to reach heaven and wage war against the One, Hashem. Alternately, they attributed the flood to natural causes and wanted to build a tower to support the heavens so it would not collapse on them. In both these interpretations, the goal was to deny Hashem’s sovereignty and control over the universe.

However, as Ramban and Ibn Ezra point out, the simple reading of the verses tells us that the people were simply focused on remaining unified. If they were not rebelling against Hashem, why did Hashem see fit to confuse their language and disperse them? If the dispersion was not a punishment for rebelling against Hashem, why did Hashem confuse their language and disperse them?

Rabbi Hillel Adler in Parsha Illuminations brings a new perspective to our discussion. He suggests that rather than a punishment for the Babelonians, Hashem was manipulating the environment for future goals. The world was created for the benefit of mankind and, ultimately for mankind to recognize the Creator. Mankind was ignoring Hashem as Creator and beginning to worship other gods.

It took Avraham Avinu to reintroduce monotheism into to the world. However, if Avraham had to challenge a united, monolithic world that would reject his ideas, he could never succeed in implanting belief in Hashem in mankind. However, with a fragmented society, these “drastic” ideas Avraham espoused could maintain a foothold at least in part of society and could grow from there.

Similarly, fragmenting and dispersing mankind throughout the world, adds Rav Schlesinger in Habinah Vehabracha, would create safe havens for Bnei Yisroel throughout history. When one nation would persecute the Jews, another nation would open its doors. Rav Broide presents a perfect, relatively recent example of this idea. When the Holocaust hit Europe, the Mir Yeshivah survived by escaping to Japan and then to China before reestablishing itself in Israel and the United States.

It is this realization and faith that Hashem runs the world that puts purpose into our lives, that events are not random and that we have a purpose, that every experience and challenge in our lives is here to help us grow, adds Rabbi Berkowitz in Six Constant Mitzvoth.

In Ben Melech, Rabbi Mintzberg brings a different perspective to this whole undertaking. While unity is a desirable trait, it should not come at the price of coerced conformity. The people of Babel had one vision, and they were attempting to impose that vision and mindset on all mankind. But Hashem wants diversity, the creation of a symphony based on united separate and disparate notes into a harmonious whole in Hashem’s service.

Although Bnei Yisroel is one nation, each tribe has its own role in completing the entire picture. That’s why, although all of Bnei Yisroel crossed Yam Suf as we left Egypt, Hashem created separate, individual paths for each tribe to traverse independently, albeit we all crossed and united in accepting the Torah. This generation failed to recognize the richness that unique individuals and outlooks would add to the human community and to God’s service. The imposition of one, forced outlook and lifestyle would eventually lead to rebellion. Even in an individual family or classroom, one must learn to appreciate the unique perspectives and contribution of each individual member.

We begin taking a different direction with Ramban’s interpretation of of the motivation behind the builders’ actions. Ramban uses an odd, enigmatic phrase to focus on their plan. Ramban says they “wanted to cut off the plantings.” Ramban continues to say that in some way, their sin was similar to the sin of the generation of the flood. But when Hashem punished the generation of the flood, the Torah uses the Name Elokhim, implying harsh destruction. Here, the Torah uses the Four lettered name, Hashem.

Rabbi Wolbe explains Ramban’s phrase with an analogy. Consider a tree with many branches, with fruit on each branch. All the branches and fruit get their sustenance through being attached to the tree. If one plucks a fruit from the tree, one severs the connection and condemns the fruit to “death,” to non existence. These people wanted to sever their connection to Hakodosh Boruch Hu.

They wanted Hashem to remain in heaven while they would make their own name, on earth and control nature. In contrast, our siddur and our prayers are filled with statements that confirm Hashem’s constant involvement in our world, for He renews the work of creation on a daily basis.

Rabbi Pincus sees the episodes of each generation recorded in the Torah as lessons for our lives. Adam’s disobeying Hashem’s command severed his connection to Hashem, and the subsequent recorded generations further severed that connection. Next, Noach’s generation taught the evil of stealing.

The sin of this generation was more subtle. This was a highly skilled generation, so skilled that they felt they could survive and even thrive independently of their Creator. They even shunned natural stone for building, preferring to grind up the stone and create manmade, brick building blocks.

They were living in Hashem’s world, but they wanted to drive Hashem out of this world. This desire was driving their unity. In contrast, we who know Hashem wants His presence to have a dwelling place in this world, acknowledge our indebtedness to Him multiple times a day, from praying three times daily to reciting a prayer over everything we eat, to continuing that connection through informal dialogue and prayer to Hashem throughout the day.

[In the fall/winter of 2001/2, one Sunday morning, a major hurricane, forecast for later in the day, started early and was beginning to flood our entire area. Our sons were already in yeshivah, and parents were called to pick them up. I had minimal problems getting to the school, but returning with three boys in our carpool, every intersection was already heavily flooded, many blocked off. We found one open but flooded intersection crossing Peninsula Blvd. As the car moved slowly through, getting deeper and deeper into the water, I hoped my engine would not flood. I wanted the boys to hear me ask for Hashem’s help. I prayed aloud, “Hashem, please get us through this intersection, and get us home safely.” I hope I also said, “Thank you, Hashem,” but I don’t remember the post trauma. CKS]

We are here on earth through Hashem’s graciousness. When we daven, we should approach Hashem as a beggar beseeching God for His help, not mouthing words by rote, without heart and without thought, for we depend on Hashem for every breath we take.

The sin of the generation of dispersion was that they could manage on their own, without Hashem’s help. In fact, we can achieve nothing on our own, neither physically, materially, nor spiritually, without Hashem’s help. The world has come full circle, continues Rabbi Pincus. In the beginning of our nationhood, our lives were very obviously totally in Hashem’s control, from the manna we ate to the clothes we wore.

Now, in the “generation of the footsteps of Moshiach,” we again realize we can rely on no one, only on Hashem. Nations and individuals, wealth and status are ephemeral. Only Hashem is constant. This truth is no more evident than during these past challenging months when our health and lives, the world economy, social life has all come to a standstill because Hashem unleashed an organism too small for the naked eye to see. May Hashem have compassion on us all and send the world His remedy.

This tension between humanity’s desire for total independence and acknowledging and submitting to God’s control plays out throughout human history. This is the constant battle of Gog, culminating in the final battle of Gog and Magog. It does not seem far fetched, writes Rav S. R. Hirsch, to see a connection between Gog and gag/roof.

Rabbi Mendel Hirsch expands on this connection by contrasting a permanent home with a roof to an impermanent home, the sukkah. People tend to put their faith in the perceived stability of a home with a permanent roof. In contrast, we go out into a sukkah to proclaim our reliance on Hakodosh Boruch Hu,. “World history started with the building of tower towering up to heaven by the self-worship of human power – and will end with the happy harmonious human life on earth building booths acknowledging God.”

Rebbetzin Smiles made us keenly aware of this lesson. New York and the USA had Twin Towers representing our economic and political mastery of the world. Yet, only nineteen years ago, the security the Towers represented came tumbling down together with the brick and mortar buildings, proving again we have no one and nothing to rely on except on Hashem our God.

The tower builders in Babel envisioned their tower to be a center of unity for all the people, a place where they could all get together to fight the war of life, explains Rabbi Bloch in Shiurei Daas. Hashem saw the subtle thought process here. If they could fight the battles with their own unity, they would have no need to ever turn to God. Therefore, Hashem confused not only their language, but also their thought processes, their total ability to communicate their thoughts effectively even while speaking the same language. [How many conflicts start because of simple misunderstandings within the same language. CKS] Therefore, it is not Elokhim, the God of nature that comes down to deal with them, but God above nature, Y-K-V-K.

While the desire to learn the forces and secrets of nature to harness them for the public good was not problematic in itself, the afterthought was that once they have this knowledge, the unity of all the races would negate the necessity of relying on God’s Providence. This thought became their ulterior motive.

The lesson Rabbi Bloch sees here is that while each of us must put in our own hishtadlus/effort in life, going to extremes is not only counter productive, but often destructive. Further, since you are not in control, your very action may be the vehicle that gives rise to the undesirable result. To reinforce this argument, Rabbi Bloch reminds us that Yosef’s brothers sold Yosef into slavery specifically to prevent his dream of sovereignty over them from coming true. Yet that sale was the very vehicle that eventually brought Yosef to this position of power as viceroy in Egypt. Perhaps the times Hashem doesn’t fulfill our wishes and dreams are the times that are actually crucial to our survival and success.

Basically, Writes Rabbi Bachye Ibn Pakuda in Shaar Habitachon, we cannot force Hashem’s hand to comply with our wishes by manipulating circumstances that surround a situation. This is covert rebellion against God. We may, however, be able to arouse Hashem’s mercy through prayer and mitzvoth.

But physical survival alone cannot be the goal of a society, teaches us the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Neither the individual nor society can exist is a spiritual vacuum. Both will eventually decay and self-destruct. We need a why to our existence.

How can we make our lives meaningful? Begin each day and end each day by connecting and acknowledging Hashem’s presence in our lives, writes Rabbi Jacobson in Towards a Meaningful Life. Then, every physical act we do will be seen as service to Hashem and will connect our soul with our Maker. We connect to Hashem; the tower builders of Babel wanted to disconnect from Hashem, creating a life devoid of meaning.

Life is not just about making “brick buildings” for yourself, but about creating meaning and purpose. Hashem/Y-K-V-K comes down to teach us this lesson and to emphasize that He is always here for us and that we need to rely on and stay connected to Him so that we will truly live and not merely exist.



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