Escaping them shadow of Babel

Rather than preserving the delicate earth that God created, we’re damaging our environment, consuming too much food and carbon.

By SAMUEL LEBENS
October 26, 2011 22:54
4 minute read.
[illustrative photo]

obese people large fat 311 (R). (photo credit: Reuters)

 
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In recent years, the Shabbat when we read the story of Noah has become associated with the environment.

Rabbis are encouraged to use the occasion to preach about environmental issues as the “green Orthodox” movement has continued to grow.

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The story of Noah is a natural hook for this message. It is the story of nature destroyed, of Noah’s care and protection for the animal kingdom, and of God’s promise never to destroy the world again. But as we consider mankind’s responsibility to preserve the world, it seems to me that the story of the Tower of Babel, also found in this week’s reading, offers even more profound lessons about the issue of climate change.

The story is short, and deceptively simple: Sometime after the great flood, the entire generation of humankind converged in one place and decided to build a city with a giant tower. Before completing the project, however, God intervened to stop them. He dispersed them throughout the world and caused their languages to multiply so they no longer had the ability to communicate as one global community.

The text, when shaved of all midrashic explanations, gives rise to a striking question: what did these people do wrong? Why did they incur such a punishment? There are two famous rabbinic answers to this question.The Talmud sees a theological sin in this story.The tower was supposed to “reach unto the heavens” (Genesis 11:4) ; that is to say, some of the builders wanted to march to the top, weapons in hand, to wage war against God. Others sought to escape any future flood that God might bring about. Still others wanted to worship other gods on the top of their ziggurat.

Other commentators view the story through a political lens: The rebels all spoke one language and were uncommonly unified (the Hebrew phrase devarim achadim is a bizarre one, and difficult to translate.

It is generally rendered as “of common purpose”). The political account suggests that this city-state was, or was destined to become, a totalitarian state in which uniformity was to be enforced.



One midrash says the builders of Babel allowed for no private property; a primorial communist state. A later authority, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893) goes so far as to suggest that the function of the tower was to allow the authorities to keep their eyes upon the entire population in order to ensure that nobody deviated from the enforced conformity.

However, in addition to these explanations, the story has another interesting feature. In addition to the curtailing of individual rights, Babel marks the first time in which man-made technology was used in the place of nature. Instead of building the infamous tower from stones, the narrative goes to great lengths to describe the bricks of mud that were prepared for the project. The first technological advance in history was used solely for self-aggrandizement.

God has bestowed upon the human race an astounding degree of intelligence. We’ve landed men on the moon, and decoded the human genome. In so doing, we fulfill God’s commandment to Adam to subdue the world; we have subjected God’s creation to our scientific scrutiny and have learned how to manipulate it in wonderful ways. But to what end? To heal the sick, clothe the naked, feed the hungry and teach the illiterate, or merely to make a name for ourselves; to have our names up in lights; to satisfy our hungry egos? In our consumer society, we have once again fallen into the trap of “devarim achadim,” our self-images have become tied up with material wealth. We are encouraged to crave the latest gadgets, the best cars, the coolest plasma TVs, not necessarily because of their utility, but because we want to keep up with the Joneses.

We all want the same things. We hate to be left behind.

Rather than preserving the delicate earth that God created, we’re damaging our environment because we’re consuming too much; too much food and too much carbon. Even if we invent technologies to save the environment from the harm we’re causing, those advances will do nothing to save the human race from the harm that we’re doing to ourselves.

According to the inspirational Rabbi Yonatan Neril, head of the Jewish Eco-Seminars organization, we over-consume because we feel an emptiness at our core. We consume too much because we’re consuming for the wrong reasons.

If we structured our lives and our economic activity differently, then we’d save our planet and ourselves. If we stop doing things just in order to make a name for ourselves; and stop acquiring things just in order to stay in fashion; if we direct our lives towards a higher purpose; to fighting injustice, to battling disease, or, to put it more simply, to the service of God and His creation, then I believe that we’d find the fulfillment that we’re looking for – spiritual fulfillment – without destroying the environment in the process. How great it would be if we could escape from the shadow of the Tower of Babel.

The writer is a Jewish educator at Aspaklaria in the Old City, an philosopher, writer, and a student at Yeshivat Har Etzion. He lives in Alon Shvut with his wife and two children and blogs at http://philosophyofjudaism.blogspot.com

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