obese people large fat 311 (R).
(photo credit: Reuters)
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
structured our lives and our economic activity differently, then we’d
planet and ourselves. If we stop doing things just in order to make a
ourselves; and stop acquiring things just in order to stay in fashion;
direct our lives towards a higher purpose; to fighting injustice, to
disease, or, to put it more simply, to the service of God and His
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