Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on 1st Cheshvan 5775, 25th October 2015
The midrash, that fascinating compilation of stories by the rabbis, sheds light on words, sentences, ideas and concepts that we might otherwise miss. And nowhere is this more evident and necessary than in the early stories of Bereshit, where details are skimpy, narrations open-ended and the lessons of the stories ambiguous at best. The story of the tower of Babel begs for explication.
So, here’s a very partial list of some of the explanations for the purpose of building the tower: to pierce the heavens and drain all the water therein, making it impossible for G‑d to bring another flood; to serve as a safe house should another flood come. To use as a shrine for idol worship. To use as a platform from which to battle G‑d; to place an idol on top of the tower to gain universal acclaim as the world’s tallest shrine and greatest god, making it the center of worship for all—with the result that the one who ruled that city would rule all humankind; to serve as the first lightning rod – God may have promised to not bring another flood but He didn’t say anything about fire and they hoped the tower would serve to divert any electrical storms that G‑d sent their way;
You pays your money and takes your choice, but whatever the original purpose, the rabbis obviously viewed the tower as a symbol of what is bad, if only because God was so against it.
But a logical problem arises. If you are building a tower to reach the heavens why begin in a valley, why not on a mountain where it is easier to quarry and transport stone? And the tower would rise even higher if it started at 500 meters rather than at minus 100 meters?
And what about the message? Are we to infer that accord is bad? The Netziv (Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, a 19th century Rosh Yeshiva of the Volozhin Yeshiva) offers a fascinating and instructive insight. He says that the Babel builders were the first social engineers—hoping to create a utopian society where all lived and thought as one. They feared that if people settled their own colonies and towns, they would develop their own cultures and unique modes of living. They wanted everyone to live in one controlled environment that remained culturally homogenous. The tower served as a base around which everyone in their planned colony would settle—with no one leaving its immediate environs. The problem with their plan was that it was the first step toward a tyrannical state where no individual expression would be tolerated, which is why their punishment was dispersion.
The relevance of this analysis is obvious – just look at ISIS, any fundamentalist movement in any religion, communism, and most other isms or cult leaders.
So what message does the tower of babel have for us today? For one thing, it should teach us to be a bit more humble. Remember Shelley’s magnificent Ozymandias:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The same is true of empires mighty and great, and also of inventions that were supposed to change the world forever. We’ve all received emails with pictures of the latest fads of the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s, all of them now all but forgotten.
Or think of the things to which we devote so much attention today. Our slavery to our smartphones, ipads, and other portable devices that keep us up to date and highly connected with everything that is happening, so that we have no idea what is happening. We may see the trees but certainly not the forest.
On the other hand, perhaps the greatest asset this congregation has is its partial resistance to all the latest technological fads, and not only because we can’t figure out how to use them. We use them but we know that next month or next year something will come and make us forget our smartphones, Facebook and Twitter and WhatsApp. And even those who have accounts in these black holes of time probably don’t get so engrossed in them that they can’t engage in real conversation and extend a real – not virtual – hand to others in need.
We also have a sense of proportion, a realization that things come and things go, but certain basic underlying elements such as courtesy and caring and true concern for our family members and for others are more long-lived than the latest iPad will ever be.
I hate to sound like an old fogey. It’s so “out” and gross and anti-now. But it’s the truth. The truth that our kids and grandkids will eventually learn. Hopefully it won’t be because the electricity runs out and there’s no juice to charge the batteries but because they truly understand the importance of family and community and commitment.
The Tower of Babel, whatever its true story (which we will never know) is perhaps a symbol of good gone bad. Yes, people all spoke the same language – the English of the day I suppose. But perhaps they wanted to use it for the wrong ends: For domination or for eradicating dissension or for fighting the forces of nature. We have our own symbolic Babels in our midst, but as long as we control them and don’t let them control us (oh excuse me, but I just have to answer an email right now), as I say, as long as we control them, we should be ok.