Jewish community members from Romania hold Torah scrolls during the inauguration ceremony for the Holocaust memorial in Bucharest October 8, 2009..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Noah is one of the most familiar Torah portions because of the story of the mabul, the flood. But following the story of the flood, we read another less well-known story about Dor Haflaga, the generation of the Tower of Babel. It is a short story that has had many commentaries written about it and we will focus on one of them. But first let us turn to the story as it appears in the Torah:
“Now the entire earth was of one language and uniform words... And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks and fire them thoroughly’; so the bricks were to them for stones, and the clay was to them for mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth.’... And the Lord scattered them from there upon the face of the entire earth, and they ceased building the city.”
(Genesis 11:1-8) The well-known explanation of this story is that it describes “crime and punishment.”
Dor Haflaga sinned and God punished them by scattering them around the ancient world. But how did they sin? The unity they wanted is usually considered a positive thing.
Even the industrial progress mentioned here, when the first stones were fired to be used as bricks in building the city and the tower, is not a negative thing. And why was their punishment to be scattered around the world? These things are not explicitly written in the Torah, and our sages wrote many explanations throughout the generations.
The 12th-century biblical commentator Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra saw this story in a completely different light. He wrote as follows: “The words reflect their desire and goal to build a big city to live in, to build a high tower for a sign, for a name, and for glory...
and those who were building saw their plan as preventing being scattered, but God did not plan so... and God scattered them and this was good for them.”
Based on Ibn Ezra’s commentary, there was no sin here but rather a mistake, and their scattering was not a punishment, but on the contrary, was good for them. What then were the mistakes in the unity and progress and the benefit in being scattered? With a little imagination, those of us who are a bit older can find a resemblance between this story and states that existed in the recent past. In Communist Russia there seemed to be amazing unity among all the citizens; a unity that was dedicated largely to technological advance and the creation of impressive monuments, some of which still exist. This example will help us understand the error that Ibn Ezra refers to.
In effect, this story describes an attempt to establish a totalitarian state with the following characteristics: cultural uniformity, shared living quarters, industrial advances, and use of manpower to build monuments that glorify man’s strength.
It could be that the motives of Dor Haflaga were not negative. They wished to create a better society. But the result was inevitable: worship of idols, dictatorship, oppression, and ultimately degradation of man and of God’s image within him.
The solution to this problem was in varying the culture and geography. People will learn – maybe despite themselves – that there is no cultural uniformity in humanity, and that interpersonal and international communications are not so easy. The goal is to benefit man: from this coerced reality, a national tendency will grow that preserves the uniqueness of each nation and the individualistic conception that ascribes uniqueness to every person, a uniqueness that bestows a specific role for each person, and the understanding that every person contributes in his own way according to his personality and traits.
This story concludes the general-humanity stories in the Torah. From here on, the Torah focuses on the story of Am Yisrael (the People of Israel); a story that begins with the forefathers and the foremothers, continues to the exile in Egypt and the liberation from it, and ultimately reaches Eretz Yisrael (The Land of Israel).
This story provides a necessary introduction to the process of the establishment of the People of Israel. The importance of each individual had to be part of the nation’s development. Preserving man’s dignity and the image of God within him is one of the keys to understanding the Torah and understanding all of Jewish history.
Shabbat shalom The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.