After the harrowing adventure of Noah and his family, the Torah confronts us with an idiosyncratic story in the middle of Shem’s genealogy - the iconic Tower of Bavel. In its short nine pasuk (verse) depiction, the Torah recounts that: the whole world spoke one language, built a tower, and that God, in response, confused their language and dispersed them. While seemingly just another story highlighting God’s divine providence, the story raises many philosophical questions, which are indicative of a much larger system of divine justice.
At the start of the story, the Torah records, “Vayhi chol-ha'aretz safah echat udevarim achadim” (Bereishit 11:1), which Onkelos translates to mean, “The whole earth was of one language and one manner of speaking”. Later, in the conclusion of the story, the Torah explains that “[God Said,] Come, let us descend and confuse their language, that they should not understand one another’s language... That is why it is called Bavel, because it was there that Hashem confused ” (Bereishit 11:7-8)
Interestingly, the final pesukim of the story, in which God confuses and disperses the people, are juxtaposed to the beginning of the narrative in which the people were of “one manner of speaking”. It is seemingly through this use of juxtaposition, that the Torah portrays the crux of the story to be that of language, and not the tower itself.
Nevertheless, this juxtaposition only begs the question: why does God explicitly highlight language to be the epicenter of the story? This question, however, only becomes more confounding when looking at Rashi. In his commentary, Rashi notes the parallelism between “And they [the people] said, ‘Come, let us build...” (Bereishit 11:4) and “[God said,] Come, let us descend, and there confuse their language...”(Bereishit 11:7), explaining that the mirroring of the word “come” is to teach us that God’s justice was “measure for measure.” If this is to be the case, why was it fitting for God to confuse their language and disperse them?
Wasn’t their sin the construction of the tower? How was the disruption of their language a fitting sentence to the crime?
To answer these questions, one must first understand the essential relationship between language and a nation. For this information, we now turn to a nineteenth-century German philosopher named Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Fichte, a contemporary of Immanuel Kant, is known for his insights in the philosophy of self-awareness and political philosophy and is regarded as a founding figure in the philosophical movement of German Idealism, as well as a father of German Nationalism.
Fichte's theory, which postulates that common language, religion, culture, history, and ethnic origins, are essential causes of nationality, is still prominent today and can provide us with a deeper understanding of the Tower of Bavel. Specifically, it is his understanding of language that will illuminate the questions at hand. In his lectures entitled The Addresses to the German Nation, Fichte writes, “Language in this unity for man, simply for man, may never and nowhere have arisen.” (p. 56)
He further goes on to say,
“If we give the name of People to men whose organs of speech are influenced by the external conditions, who live together and... then we must say: the language of this people is necessarily just what it is, and in reality, this people do not express its knowledge, but its knowledge expresses itself out of the mouth of the people.” (p. 56)
Without language, there can be no shared culture, no shared history, no shared ideals and ideology, and most importantly, no shared legal and or moral system.
In essence, in order for any idea to be expressed, there must be some system of language that allows it to be conveyed through the mouths of the people. Without language, there can be no shared culture, no shared history, no shared ideals and ideology, and most importantly, no shared legal and or moral system. For as Fichte states, “Among the people with a living language, mental culture influences life, whereas among a people of the opposite kind, mental culture and life go their separate ways” (p. 73). Without language, there can be no semblance of unity, which in turn precludes any reality of a national identity from emerging.
It is precisely for this reason that the Tower of Bavel is found within the genealogies of one of Noah’s sons. The genealogies represent an intrinsic shift from that of a family unit into that of national status. This placement highlights the inherent connection between nationality and language, and it is with this understanding that we can now begin to understand the sin of the people.
The people said, “come let us build...” (Bereishit 11:4). It is through this use of language, a fundamental tenet of their nationality, that they rebelled against God. This is all the more apparent when “Hashem descended to look at the city and tower... and Hashem said, ‘Consider, that they are one people with one language for all of them, and this they begin to do!”(Bereishit 11:5-6) The people had used the very thing that was supposed to create unity in an attempt to abdicate their relationship with God. Thus, in equal measure, God removed them from each other using that with which they had sinned - their language.
It is not, however, just with the Tower of Bavel, in which this relationship between language and nationality exists; this same system of judgment plays a role later on in the Torah as well. At the end of Parshat Beha’alotecha, Miriam speaks lashon hara (slander), is afflicted with tzarat, and is removed from the camp. Albeit seven days, her expulsion is no coincidence. Her sin, similar to the Tower of Bavel, revolved around language and similarly resulted in a separation from the national identity. She, like those of the Tower of Bavel, used language in a manner that was contrary to its nature. Her speech was intended to divide instead of to unite and therefore she was punished per her action.
It is now apparent from this week's Parsha that within language lies the potential of unification. Yet, when used wrongly, language possesses the greatest threat to our national integrity. It is incumbent upon us as family, friends, and especially as members of the Jewish Nation, that we actively and continually pursue language in its intended form. For if we don’t, it will result in a division of ourselves from our national identity.
Shaun Slamowitz, born in Denver, Colorado, is in the midst of furthering his education at Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah, a gap year yeshiva located in Modiin. He is interested in philosophy and the sciences and intends to pursue a career in experimental psychology. He looks forward to continuing his studies at the University of Maryland next year.