D’var Torah: Maybe the Tower of Babel wasn’t so bad


Rabbi David Reinhart

This weeks Torah portion, Parashat Noach, tells the story of the eponymous Noah. Over six chapters (Genesis 6:9-11:32) and 153 verses, we read of Noah, the flood, the dove and olive branch, Gods promise to never again destroy the world and, subsequently, the descendants of Noah and his sons who repopulate the world.

However, in the midst of this extended list of the generations of Noah, tracing his lineage to Abraham, we find a second narrative that is well known yet often overlooked and, perhaps, misunderstood.

In just nine short verses, Parashat Noach also recalls the tale of the Tower of Babel. Genesis 11:4-9 form the core of this story:

“And they said, ‘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.’ The Eternal came down to look at the city and tower that man had built, and God said, ‘If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.’ Thus, the Eternal scattered them over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city.”

Traditionally, this story and the actions of the people are interpreted as another act of corruption and evil, this time by the generations after the flood, with most pointing to their dispersal as divine punishment. Multiple midrashim suggest that the attempt to build “a tower with its top in the sky” is an act of hubris, a rejection of and rebellion against the Eternal, even a turning to idol worship.

Genesis Rabbah 38:8 explains: “ ‘to make a name [shem] for ourselves.’  The School of Rabbi Ishmael taught — shem [a name] refers to nothing other than an idol.”

This is taken a step further by Rabbi Elazar who, in Genesis Rabbah 38:6, suggests “this generation said to one another, ‘God has no right to choose the celestial spheres for God’s self and assign us the terrestrial world! Rather, come, let us build a tower at the top of which we will set an idol holding a sword in its hand, which will thus appear to wage war against God.’ ”

Moreover, Sefer HaYshar (Book of Genesis, Noach 14) suggests that, in addition to attempting to wage war against God, the people’s actions in building the tower itself were evil, with the people eventually placing more importance on the stones and bricks than the value of human life.

Yet, none of this “evil” is evident within the text itself. Indeed, God’s stated reason for confounding the people’s speech and dispersing them throughout the world does not seem to indicate evil nor a punishment at all, as the above midrashim imply. God does not seem angered by the people’s actions; rather, God seems fearful of humanity’s potential, worrying that “nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.”

Having recently destroyed mankind due to its wicked ways, God is still focused on its potential for evil. Thus, faced with the its  most recent show of collective ingenuity and force, God undermines mankind’s ability to work together, dividing the peoples of the world not only in distance but, more importantly, in their ability to communicate with each other.

Unfortunately, in attempting to prevent mankind’s capacity for evil, by subverting our ability to communicate effectively, God limits humanity’s otherwise infinite potential for creativity and good.

Ultimately, the Tower of Babel is an account explaining how the nations were separated and scattered throughout the world and why so many languages exist amongst humanity. However, if we focus on this separation solely as a form of divine punishment for our evil nature, we only reinforce these divisions and miss a valuable lesson in God’s reasoning.

When we set aside our differences and try to understand one another, regardless of the actual language we’re speaking, we have the great ability to shape and impact our world. And we must remember, from just last week, that our creation — b’tzelem Elohim, in the divine image — is deemed “tov me’od – very good.”

This goodness is inherent in our potential. It simply is up to us to see it — in ourselves and in one another — and to work together to realize it in our actions and collective endeavors.

May we look for this potential, for this goodness and, in so doing, create a world of peace and righteousness for us all.

Rabbi David A. Reinhart serves United Hebrew Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.