Rabbi Yisrael Cohn
Director of Aliyah, Jerusalem Municipality
The episode of the Tower of Babel is a story of just 9 verses. The Torah tells us how the generation after the flood decided to build a tower that they hoped would reach heaven. The plan does not work and the people are scattered across the globe. If beforehand everyone spoke one language, they now speak many languages.
The presentation of the story in the Torah leaves us with some fundamental questions.
Why build a tower?
What went wrong?
The Torah seems vague about why the people decided to build a tower. We are told,
“And the whole earth was of one language and with one idea… And they said: ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth”.
This does not seem to be a terrible, dangerous plan.
The Tower of Babel seems to reflect an effort to stay in touch. Humanity was repopulating the world after the flood and they wanted to maintain contact. The Tower of Babel was to be a focal point for all of humanity, the goal to stay united.
Furthermore, we are told in the opening verse that humanity all spoke the same language; they were together and wanted to remain so. Is that a bad thing?
Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv) draws our attention to a phrase in the first verse – דְבָרִים אֲחָדִים, “one idea”.
Rashi quotes the Midrash concerning what the idea might be, he suggests different possibilities. Perhaps it was an attempt to protect humanity from a future flood, perhaps it was an attempt to attack G-d. There is a dispute concerning what the idea was, but it was certainly a bad one.
Netziv takes another approach. He does not attempt to understand what the דְבָרִים אֲחָדִים were. The problem is not in the content of the idea, bur rather in the uniformity of the idea. דברים אחדים, one idea. He is less interested in what the idea was, he is more interested in the fact that there was only one idea.
Netziv offers an insightful perspective on the story. He suggests that the Tower of Babel was an effort to achieve uniformity within humanity. It was an attempt to create a world in which everyone thought in the same way, a world of clones. The purpose of the tower was to create a place from which it would be possible to monitor all of human activity. It was a place designed to maintain uniform behavior. Its goal was to create a world in which everyone acted in the same way.
The generation after the flood was scared of diversity. They were fearful of people different to them. They said: let us build a tower, פֶּן נָפוּץ עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ: lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. Netziv explains that anyone who thought differently to the builders of the Tower was sentenced to death. The sin of the generation of Babel is not what they thought, it was how they thought. The Tower of Babel was an attempt to turn humanity into one homogenous society and that is not what G-d wants from us.
There is a critical difference between man and animals. A lion acts like a lion that is the only way in which it can behave it cannot adopt the character of an ant. All cats behave alike; they cannot behave like monkeys. Human beings are different. Each person has their own personality, their own behavior, individuality. There is not a page in the Gemara without arguments. The Gemara in Eruvin concludes a debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai with the words אלו ואלו דברי אלוקים חיים- והלכה כבית הלל, these and these are the words of the Living God, Halacha follows Beit Hillel. We discuss, we debate. We serve Hashem together, as part of the community, but we also develop our own individual relationship with Him.
The Tower of Babel was a challenge to our individuality. It was a challenge to the essence of how the world is supposed to function. It was an attempt to rob humanity of diversity. We are not supposed to act as robots in our service of G-d; it must be a personal individual experience. G-d responded to the Tower of Babel by scattering humanity across the face of Earth. People started to speak different languages, people thought differently. The Tower of Babel reminds us that we need not all be the same. We are supposed to use the Mitzvot to develop our own personal relationship with God.