Parshat Noah 2017
Is Google and its co-conspirators making us into another Babel? We might think so as we read the strange and ambiguous story of the Tower of Babel. In essence, what was wrong with all the people being in one place and speaking one language, and what was wrong with them wanting to build a tower that reached the sky? Likewise, what’s wrong with Google wanting to know everything in the world about us?
Today, almost everyone speaks English (or pseudo-English), or Chinese. And they’re all on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter building themselves imaginary lives through millions of followers. Is that Babel again?
An incisive analysis by Rabbanit Sharon Rimon of the short paragraph that tells the story of Babel floodlights this story and indicates what it may signify, and from this we will be able to see where Babel and Google parallel each other and where they diverge. Whether our end will be that of Babel’s (or worse) – that’s anyone’s guess.
In Babel, all the people were together, they had one language and they all spoke uniformly. Being together in one place is a good trait. They had one language, which meant they could all understand each other (would that we could) but speaking uniformly indicates a certain conformity of thought and expression that may indicate outside pressures on the collective.
Today, we are scattered all over but the internet unites us. As for one language – although English is doing pretty well it is certainly not the only language. Just ask the French. At the same time forces around us seem to be pushing us to conformity in our thinking. Forces in the community, the government, the media. They seek to discourage criticism and threaten to close down any channel that dares to speak otherwise. See Russia, China, sometimes even Israel.
In Babel they wanted to build a tower, and they could because, we learn, they had mastered the art of making bricks. So far so good. A tower could help them keep an eye on livestock in the fields or approaching enemies.
But what was the real purpose of the tower? We are told it was to reach the heavens, to make a name for them and to prevent their being dispersed all over the land. Suddenly the story takes on a negative tone. Why reach the heavens? To rise above the human residence on earth and challenge God in his abode? And then to make a name for themselves – not for their God, but to aggrandize themselves. A lot of egoism here. And to prevent being dispersed? Dispersal would mean lack of control over the people.
Today, making a name for ourselves is the name of the game. What are all the reality shows if not an attempt for talented people, and schlemiels, to bask in their 15 minutes of glory? You know what – that sounds democratic! Everyone has a chance to be king or queen for a moment. And if they are really enterprising, and lucky, they can extend that quarter hour into much longer and much more money.
And they have help. They have social media where you can become anything you want and gather likes like raindrops. But the question is who’s behind it and in control of the whole shebang?
This is where the similarities between Babel and today become clearer. You know that we are being watched all the time – no I am not paranoid (and even if I were that wouldn’t mean people aren’t out to get me). Cameras all over. Take a picture in a restaurant on your smartphone and Google will ask how you enjoyed the meal and the service. Google, Amazon, Apple, Waze, TripAdvisor. They all know where we all are and what we are all doing and they want to know what we think.
Control. We have relinquished control over our freedom and to some extent over our lives. If we post an idea that counters the prevailing winds, we may be exposed to shaming and curses, we’ll be branded, cast out, even threatened. We can’t think outside the box, not publicly.
The motivation today is money. Money is power. Information about us is money. Selling us products is money. And we are slowly – ok, rapidly – digging ourselves into a rut and clearly defined channels of thought and action that others are choosing for us.
The punishment for the people of Babel was that suddenly they couldn’t understand each other. A midrash says that people hit their comrades with hammers because they couldn’t understand them. Rabbi Yossi Schreiber explains that when a good quality – in this case unity – is misused, it can become a tool of punishment and people lose the right to the good qualities they had.
The Babelites were dispersed over the globe and the center of power was lost, first because they couldn’t communicate and second because they couldn’t control what was going on elsewhere.
We as Jews are in better shape. We have already been dispersed. Wherever we land, Chabad has already set up a center to welcome us.
But we do have the threat of non-communication. Even though we seem to speak one language we are losing communication with our own brethren abroad, in the US and Europe and even here. This is not the result of a divine decree, although some would have us believe that it is in the divine interest.
What’s the lesson of the story of Babel? It may simply be the ancients’ way of explaining how so many different languages and cultures came into being. Or it may be an allegory warning us of the dangers of too much egocentrism, too much mind control and too little concern for the good of the community as a whole. Take your choice, while you still have it.