Friday, November 1, 2019 /3 Heshvan, 5780
Parashat Noah Genesis 6:9-11:32
This week’s Torah portion includes the curious story of the Tower of Babel. Taking place just after the flood, nine short verses describe a world in which people are working together for a common purpose. They say to one another, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.” (Genesis 11:4)
The Rabbis debate the motivations of the people. Some say that they created the tower in order to protect them from future floods. After the world was turned upside down with destruction, building the tower may have been a way of regaining a sense of control. Other Rabbis teach that the people built a tower in order to wage war with God, or to worship idols. (Sanhedrin 109a)
Regardless of their motivations, what strikes me most about the story is its lack of personality. No single individual is mentioned throughout the entire story of Babel. There are no discussions or words of dissent. Nameless people, void of individual identity, are working together as a cohesive whole. The people express a grave fear of being scattered all over the world. It is as if the people believe that the only way to survive is to live a uniform life, ignoring all differences between them, and devoting themselves to a common goal.
As is so often human tendency, they became so focused on their project that they failed to see the bigger picture. Midrash Hagadol explains, “As the tower grew in height it took one year to get bricks from the base to the upper stories. Thus, bricks become more precious than human life. When a brick slipped and fell the people wept, but when a worker fell and died no one paid attention.” They are so desperate to survive that they do not notice the ways in which they are killing one another.
God responds by doing the very action the people most feared by giving them different languages and scattering the people throughout the world. What the people feared would be a curse turned out to be a blessing.
They were forced to interact with one another in a different way. Now living in different lands and speaking different languages, they could no longer ignore the uniqueness of every soul. The story of Babel is a reminder that as we embrace the community that brings us together, it is essential to also embrace our different talents, perspectives and backgrounds. Let us not take for granted the diversity of membership within our own temple community.
We are Jews and non-Jews of all colors, genders, sexualities, abilities, economic status, and backgrounds. We come from many different countries of origin, and we all have unique stories to share. Our diversity is one of our greatest strengths. Every day, our community proudly proclaims differences are not a detriment at all. They are one of our greatest assets.