Stalin, the succa and the Tower of Babel

Our recent celebration of Succot provided me with a moment of reflection on the vulnerability of both the succa and those who dwell in it.

PEOPLE CARRY a poster with a portrait of late Soviet dictator Josef Stalin (photo credit: REUTERS)
PEOPLE CARRY a poster with a portrait of late Soviet dictator Josef Stalin
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I must tell you the tragic tale of Joseph Stalin’s “Tower of Babel”: the White Sea Canal. This was “one of the most spectacular projects of the First Five-Year Plan,” according to Robert H. McNeal, one biographer of the Soviet dictator, involving the construction of canals that would link various lakes and rivers between the White Sea and the Baltic Sea in a sparsely inhabited and rocky region plagued by severe winters.
This project, meant to aggrandize Stalin and reflect the glory of the new Soviet Union, employed slave labor from the Gulag for almost every aspect of construction, including the canal’s engineers. The project, begun in 1931, was concluded within two years, during which time 100,000 slave laborers died in horrible conditions. According to a recent account of the grandiose Stalinist project, historian Donald Rayfield states that the deadly and immoral undertaking involved “some 300,000 prisoners – underfed, freezing in winter, tormented by midges in summer – cut[ting] through bogs of granite. There was little reinforcing iron for the concrete; human bones and tree branches were used.”
And it was all for nothing; the canal was too shallow for ships that could withstand the Arctic Ocean. It was crumbling even before being finished and has since been reconstructed twice Stalin’s grand vision was foreshadowed long ago by the actual Tower of Babel, described in the Book of Genesis. The ancient rabbis, describing the working conditions of those who built the tower, condemned the builders for weeping and mourning for a brick that accidentally fell from the grand edifice while dismissing the worker who fell off the tower’s scaffolding as not meriting a tear. For the builders of the Tower of Babel, human life was irrelevant and not deserving of respect or consideration.
The end goal of constructing an edifice to reach to the domain of God in the heavens was their only concern. The end goal of transforming men into gods was all that mattered. Was this not the strategy and worldview of totalitarian regimes throughout the past century? STALIN, HITLER, Mussolini, Mao – these were men who aspired to divinity and debased, degraded and destroyed human life in order to pursue personal glory and the glory of the state. They built their modern Towers of Babel.
Our recent celebration of Succot provided me with a moment of reflection on the vulnerability of both the succa and those who dwell in it. This vulnerability, this placing of trust in God, is the exact opposite of the Tower of Babel ziggurat of the Book of Genesis. The message of the succa is not that we transform ourselves into God – we simply for seven days acknowledge our humility and the reality of God’s power. This vulnerability is not expected of us year round – we cannot subject ourselves to a state of powerlessness permanently.
Lack of power and sovereignty is deadly, as we all know in the post-Shoah epoch. But the holiday says to us: be humble, if only for a moment, and realize your limitations. The succa symbolizes humility and trust. We must acknowledge that despite all the great achievements of modern humankind – think of the mapping of the human genome, the walking on the Moon, the discovery of vaccines for polio and other deadly diseases – we are still vulnerable and limited.
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveichik’s brilliant analysis of the creation of Adam forces us to understand the nature of humanity, standing between the succa and the Tower of Babel. Soloveichik paints a portrait of the first man as one who masters his environment but at the same time must confront the loneliness of mortality that epitomizes the human condition.
There must exist a middle ground between helpless humility and Nietzsche’s all-powerful “monumental history.”
Perhaps the Temples in Jerusalem represent a compromise between the succa and the Tower of Babel. While the structures were glorious – especially the Herodian Temple, a showplace of the ancient world – the sense that God’s presence dwelt in the structure sent the message of the humility of all those engaged in sacrifice and worship. Herod’s great mistake was his believing that he could earn the Judeans’ respect and loyalty by trying to build his towers of Babel, whether in Jerusalem or Caesaria.
Certainly, great buildings project a sense of power and importance. But without the succa component of humility and vulnerability, these grand structures are revealed as solely an example of “the edifice complex.” A synagogue built as an awesome structure is a wonderful way to inspire awe in worshipers.
But without the human soul, mitzvot, acts of hesed – it is simply a building and nothing more.
I imagine that this was where many synagogues failed, especially in the United States. A storefront Chabad shtiebl is not the most glorious of places.
But the Rebbe was not Herod. The Rebbe cared for the Jewish soul, not for the grand illusion of human glory. The same could be said for Rav Kook: He obviously understood that the glory of the state was a central component of Zionism. But he always sensed the danger that the “monumental history” of modern nationalism could be transformed into a source of idol worship.
That the Torah is not simply another ancient code of law is evident from the lessons we learn today from the Five Books of Moses and the civilization it spawned. If you were to inherit millions of dollars from a wealthy parent, you would certainly take the inheritance. If you were living in a tin shack and beneath the ground precious stones were buried – you would start digging and move into a mansion.
I often think about how our enemies destroyed Torah scrolls in synagogues throughout Germany and Austria on November 9-10, 1938. They were trying to destroy the essence of who we are as Jews.
But we know better – our inheritance is of a price far above rubies, diamonds and dollars. We will seize it and embrace it.
The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.