I have often puzzled over the story of the Tower of Babel, which comes near the end of our parsha today. The 9 sentences that form this story begin with what looks like an idyllic tale of a community united in a cause, a community working together, and it doesn’t seem like what they did was so bad.
Growing up, community was pretty much my family’s religion. Specifically Jewish community, of course. If someone was moving somewhere, for example, people might tell them, “Oh, they have a nice community there!” The most important thing about any city was, what is its Jewish community like? Is it strong, meaning, does the collective exist in a healthy way? Do they take care of the Jews in that city? Even now, if someone asks me if my son and daughter-in-law like living in Baltimore, I usually respond, “they have a really wonderful community there”. The word “community” is short-hand for a strong shul, schools, local organizations and a great chevra. In fact, I would venture to say that, besides family, one’s community is the most important factor in a person’s well-being. Sometimes it’s even more important than family!
Then, too, I got a master’s degree in “Jewish Communal Service”. Our mantra was “community! It was the subject of nearly every class, the topic of discussion of every course, and the bible of our school curriculum was a book called Community and Polity, by Daniel Elazar. So, forgive me for thinking, as I read the story of the Tower of Babel, just what is so bad about what this strong community did?
Let me read for you the relevant sentences: “va’yehi kol ha’aretz safa echat u’dvarim achadim: And the whole earth had one language, and used the same words.” And a couple sentences later, having journeyed from the east during 400 years following the great Flood and settled in an empty plain, “Hava nivne lanu ir u’migdal, v’rosho bashamayim, v’naaseh lanu shem, pen nafutz al p’nei kol ha’aaretz: come, let us build us a city and a tower with its head in the heavens, and we’ll make for ourselves a name, lest we be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” We as Jews know that it’s painful for a community to become scattered; it happened to us, twice, and we consider those two instances our greatest national tragedies. What’s so bad about being united, with one language and one purpose, and building a tall tower? The urge to build grand buildings seems to be universal: almost every culture throughout history builds great structures: we even joke about it and call it “The Edifice Complex”! Wasn’t this just an early example, maybe the first example, of that same universal urge?
We should be impressed by this generation, which follows upon the one of Noah and the Flood: in that generation, individual violence toward others was rampant; it is commonly understood that the sin of the generation of the flood was precisely a lack of community: a lack of organized civilization, lawlessness, and every man for himself, to the detriment of all others. Now, 400 years later on the empty plains to the west of where Noah and his son Shem had settled and planted and built a new civilization, this generation was doing something laudable. They were united, they worked together to build a building. As far as trying to put its head into the heavens, people have always tried to build things as tall as their technology and materials will allow. What is so bad about what these people did? It is the opposite of the anarchy and chaos of the generation of the flood, the opposite of the clear and terrible sin for which G-d destroyed the entire earth.
In fact, most commentators agree that the exact nature of this generation’s sin is not so clear. In the next sentence, we read “Va’yered HaShem lirot et ha’ir v’et hamigdal asher banu bnei ha’adam: and G-d came down to see the city and the tower that the sons of Man had built”. Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch says, the sin of the people was not a physical one, and not even a social one: on the surface, peace and unity still were present. We might even say, it seemed like a nice community!
Rav Hirsch points out that this is the first time in the Torah that we see the word “vayered, and He came down”. Apparently even G-d wasn’t sure what to make of this new enterprise on the plains. He comes down to see or to test the ultimate purpose of this tower, because the motive or the purpose is exactly the point. Now we begin to see the flaw that the tower represents. Yes, it is being built with unity, by a community all together, without violence one to another. But here G-d is not happy with what He sees as the ulterior motive of the builders: “vayomer haShem, heyn am echad v’safa echat l’kulam, v’zeh hachilam la’asot? And G-d said, here they are, one people and one language for everyone, and this is the first thing they do?!” We can see that G-d is not pleased: if they had built something perhaps with the intention of worshipping G-d, maybe it would have been OK. Or perhaps, as the commentators point out, the main error of the tower builders was that they put TOO much emphasis on community, at the expense of the individual.
The explanation we are usually taught is that the people were arrogant, trying to compete with G-d for a place in heaven. But this idea, that the emphasis was on community at the expense of the individual, is different. It goes against our usual focus, which touts community as the ultimate Jewish process. We’ve all learned that on Yom Kippur, we say the Kol Nidre prayer and the Vidui and the Al Cheit in the plural, because the emphasis is on the fact that we are a community, not just individuals. We learn that the Jews at Mt. Sinai said “na’aseh v’nishma” in the plural, again because they were a community, not just individuals. We as Jews learn this and internalize it with our mother’s milk. So now we learn that the sin of the people of the Tower was that they valued community TOO much.
Permit me to say here that it seems like humankind can do nothing right: in the generation of the flood, it was anarchy, every man for himself. Now, 400 years later, the people come together in peace and unity, with a sole purpose in mind, and G-d is still not happy: too much community, not enough freedom for the individual. Rav Hirsch explains that yes, the community was primary; but SO primary, that the leaders of this generation, in fear of scattering and losing the primacy of their power, wanted to subjugate all the individual people in working for the national cause. Not only did the Tower lack any reference to worship of G-d, but the process of building it actually inhibited the worship of G-d. The communal goal of building the tower WAS the object of worship; the construction process replaced G-d. it essentially became idolatry. Rav Hirsch says, “The state, the community will not allow the individual any other supreme lord other than itself”.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that the language in sentence 4, “hava nivneh” and “pen nafutz” (come let us build, lest we be scattered) closely mirrors the language in sefer Shemot, of Paroh in Egypt when he also says, “hava nitchakma lo, pen yirbeh” (come let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply), implying that Bavel, like Egypt, was an Imperial power that forced its subjects into using only the empire’s language, subjugating entire populations and riding roughshod over individual identities and freedoms. So we see that the unity and singularity of purpose that the people of Bavel supposedly showed in their construction efforts was more like slavery to the common good, not peaceful or united at all. Rabbi Sacks comes to the conclusion that when G-d then said, “hava nerda v’navla sham sfatam, come let us go down and confuse their language so that no one will understand the language of the other”, He was actually returning the world of nations to its prior, free, decentralized state: back to their own languages, to their own nations, scattered instead of corralled into one empire where the communal goal outweighed all else.
We can certainly see in our own times, the danger of one central super power that conquers surrounding nations and then forces the collective onto the individuals, in terms of government and language and even the economy. The Soviet Union comes easily to mind: three generations grew up seeing the Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Moldova, Belarus, etc., not as countries but as Soviet States. They had been sovereign countries before 1917, and are now again. Was their collective farm system, which starved millions of citizens and was forced upon them, good for them? Was it good for them that their languages were outlawed and for 70 years their children were allowed to learn only Russian? And this is about the average Soviet citizen, not to mention what this communal ideology, idolizing the common good at the expense of the individual, did to the Soviet Jews.
If we see the Tower of Babel not as an exercise in peaceful community but rather as an early example of the subjugating of independent peoples by an imperial power, then it makes perfect sense that G-d undid their efforts and in fact did scatter them, just as they had feared. The individual and anarchic culture of the generation of the Flood failed, and was punished in the extreme. The next generation’s overly collectivist culture, at the expense of the individual (be it the singular person, or the individual nation with its own identity and language), also failed. G-d punished it not by extinction, since He had limited his own ability to repeat the flood, but rather by undermining the mistaken goals and mission of the community and scattering them across the entire earth.
The story of the Tower of Babel essentially sets the stage for the beginning of the Jewish people in the next parsha, as G-d selects one person to build up a new culture. This culture will be one where individuals will be united in a common purpose, yes, but this time their mission will be to do good in the name of G-d, not to tyrannize others or seek fame for themselves with a skyscraper.