The sins of the generation of the flood, and sins of the generation of the dispersion (the Tower of Bavel), with which Parashat Noach deals, involve two grave misdeeds committed by mankind which warranted severe punishment. But whereas the sin of the generation of the flood is clear and understood, the sin of the Towerof Bavelis shrouded in mystery. Indeed, Chazal comment in the Midrash, “The sin of the generation of the flood is made explicit in the text, whereas with regard to the generation of the dispersion the text is vague and does not clarify the sin” (Bereishit Rabba 38:6).
God’s different responses to these sins led the Midrash to point to a unique characteristic of the builders of Migdal Bavel, who worked together with remarkable unity and harmony. The Midrash writes: “The generation of the flood were thieves, and they fought with one another. Therefore, they were annihilated. These [the generation of Migdal Bavel] conducted themselves with friendship and camaraderie among them, as it says, ‘One language, and the same words.’ We learn that strife is despised, whereas peace is great.” A close study of the pesukim describing the punishment of the generation of the Tower reveals a depiction of tranquillity, a close-knit society with genuine concern for the unity of the human race. The impression given is that they were clean from the sins of the generation of the flood, which involved mainly crimes committed against other people. Furthermore, the shared goal of preserving unity bound the generation together. They therefore sought to construct a tower that would reach the heavens and thus be seen even from a distance: “They said: Come, let us build a city and a tower with its top in the skies, so that we may make a name for ourselves, lest we become dispersed throughout the earth.”
The Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer defines the sin of this generation as follows: “If a person fell and died [while building the tower], they would pay no attention to him. But if a brick fell, they would sit and cry.” That same friendship and camaraderie that characterized this society is portrayed in this Midrash in a much different light. Indeed, the common goal unified the people of the generation, but this goal was deemed many times more critical than the actions of an individual. In their view, the individual person is null and void with respect to the task at hand. We may detect an allusion to this comment by the Midrash in the plan of this generation to “make for ourselves a name.” The purpose of the Tower was to glorify the singular importance and supremacy of the society at large. It involved no concern whatsoever for the welfare of the individual or any attempt to create a just, moral society. It was intended rather to exalt the power of society above the considerations of justness and morality. Along these lines we may understand the concern that prompted this project: “lest we become dispersed throughout the earth.” A society that concerns itself with the needs of the individual and realizes its spiritual and moral destiny at a higher level than the moral capabilities of the individual, is joined together by the sense of gratitude the members feel towards one other. But when the leaders of a society are interested in subjugating the will of the individuals to their own needs, they must resort to artificial means, such as a tower rising to the heavens. For good reason, the Gemara (Chulin 89a) notes that this enterprise was led by Nimrod, whom the pasuk describes as, “gibor tzayid lifnei Hashem” (“A powerful hunter before God”), which Chazal interpret to mean that he would “hunt” people by deliberately misleading them.
In light of this explanation of the sin, the purpose of the punishment becomes clear. In response to the attempt at negating the individual and granting supreme status to the society at large, the punishment came to emphasize and underscore the differences and distinctions between people, which makes it impossible to eliminate personal identity. The mixing of the languages restored the human being to his initial, primary status, as the creature for whom the world was created. The human being, the crown jewel of creation, was returned to his natural place at the center of existence, and we thereby learn an important lesson as to the role of society according to the Torah. It is to be not merely a combination of individual strengths towards a collective goal, but rather a system of mutual support and assistance among the individuals participating in the society’s pursuit of its aims.