Friday, October 12, 2018 /3 Heshvan, 5779
Parashat Noah Genesis 6:9-11:32
Anyone of us who ever has been the victim of a biting remark, knows the power of language.
Similarly, anyone of us who ever has felt isolated in a foreign country, unable to speak the native tongue, also knows the vulnerability of language.
And, this week’s Torah portion brings these messages dramatically home, with the wonderful Tower of Babel vignette. You recall the story: humankind is ambitious and audacious, and seeks to intrude upon the Divine precinct by building a tower skywards. God was alarmed, fearing what these presumptuous humans might do next, so God decided to undermine their power. Noting that they were “all one people with one language,” [Genesis 11:6] God resolved to confound their speech, so that one would not understand what another was saying. Thereafter, humans not only would speak many, varied tongues, but they stopped their building project and became scattered over the face of the earth.
The story is rich in teachings and messages, including the power and vulnerability inherent in language. The construction project to the heavens stopped as soon as the builders could no longer communicate with each another. Furthermore, the people not only couldn’t communicate cooperatively, but they became distrustful and suspicious of others whose words now were thoroughly foreign.
Most basically, the Torah’s story comes to explain in mythological fashion why the earth is covered with human diversity of culture and language. After all, if we all evolved from one, common human source, then why should we be so diverse?
But more, the Torah’s story comes to remind us not to take language for granted. One doesn’t need to travel abroad to a foreign land to struggle to understand; we only need to listen to the languages around us in San Pedro, Palos Verdes, Torrance and Long Beach. The experience of speech truly is basic to the human enterprise. And, one only needs to hear a disdainful comment to remember anew how powerful speech might be.
Language is an incredible tool. Let’s use it to build towers of cooperation, potential, and holiness!
Rabbi Doug Kohn