1998Noah dominates the Parsha that bears his name. This is appropriate. It is a straightforward story. It's dramatic, tragic and it has a flawed hero at the center. At the end of Noah story, the world begins anew. New hopes, new possibilities, a new future for humanity, "These are the generations of Noah."
We Are Not One! The Borg* Motifs in Babel-Land
...and then comes the next story...uh oh...
Now all the earth was of one language and one set-of-words. And it was when they migrated to the east that they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said, each man to his neighbor: Come-now! Let us bake bricks and let us burn them well-burnt! So for them brick-stone was like building-stone and raw-bitumen was for them like red-mortar. Now they said: Come-now! Let us build ourselves a city and a tower, its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered over the face of all the earth! But YHWH came down to look over the city and the tower that the humans were building.
YHWH said: Here, (they are) one people with one language for them all, and this is merely the first of their doings-now there will be no barrier for them in all that they scheme to do! Come-now! Let us go down and there let us baffle their language, so that no man will understand the language of his neighbor. So YHWH scattered them from there over the face of all the earth, and they had to stop building the city. Therefore its name was called Bavel/Babble, for there, YHWH baffled the language of all the earth-folk, and from there, YHWH scattered them over the face of all the earth.
Your Parsha Navigator
1. What does "of one language and one set-of-words" mean?
2. What's wrong with building a tower and making a name for yourself so that the world will know who you are?
3. Why is God threatened by this?
4. How does this behavior differ from the behavior of the generation of the flood? (See Genesis Chapters 9 and 10)
This is an enigmatic story. It seems on the surface to condemn collective ambition as seditious. Anyone who has been told the Bible story assumes that the people had been more badly behaved than the text intimates. After all, God is responding to something. The midrash, through a close reading of the first verse offers several possibilities of what it means to be "of one language and one set-of-words."
Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 36:6
NOW ALL THE EARTH WAS OF ONE LANGUAGE AND ONE SET-OF-WORDS: Rabbi Eleazar said: That means, of veiled speech, for the deeds of the generation of the Flood are explicitly stated, whereas those of the generation of Separation (this is what the rabbis called the generation who built the Tower of Babel) are not explicitly stated.
AND OF ONE SPEECH (the Hebrew word for one (ACHaD) also contains the word (ChaD) which means prickly): that means that they spoke against two who were unique to the generation. They spoke against Abraham who was one and against The Lord our God, the Lord is One (Deut. 6:4). They said: 'This Abraham is a barren mule and cannot produce offspring.'
Against 'The Lord our God, the Lord is One,' they said: 'He has no right to choose the heavens for Himself and assign us the earth! Let us build a tower and place an idol on top waving a sword that will appear to wage war against Him.'
Another interpretation: AND ONE SET-OF WORDS (AHADIM) means what belongs to one belongs to the other, and what belongs to the other belongs to the first.
Yet from the flood no one was spared and from this incident everyone lived!!! It is because the generation of the Flood was steeped in robbery, as it is written, They remove the landmarks, they violently take away flocks and feed them therefore not a remnant of them was left. And since the generation of the tower, on the other hand, loved each other, as it is written, NOW ALL THE
EARTH WAS OF ONE LANGUAGE, therefore a remnant of them was left.
Rebbe said: Great is peace, for even if Israel practice idolatry but maintain peace among themselves, the Holy One, says, ' I have no dominion over them '; for it is said, Ephraim is united in idol-worship; leave him alone (Hos.4:17). But when their hearts are divided, what is written? Their heart is divided; now shall they bear their guilt.
Your Midrash Navigator
1. According to the various interpretations of the midrash, what crimes were committed by the tower builders?
2. Why would a community that did not believe in private property be a threat to God?
3. Do you imagine them being worse than those committed by the generation of the flood?
4. According to the Midrash what are the dangers of extreme unity?
5. In spite of the dangers, why does Rebbe find it admirable?
6. What is the difference between unity and diversity?
The rabbis understand that a unity which threatens diversity, which does not honor the uniqueness of peoples will create a mindless horde of people that would be easily swayed to rebel. They appreciate, however, that with unity there is peace.
Extreme unity, however, will breed wanton uniformity. Peace within will inevitably bring aggression from without. In a world where all the people are united, only God can stand in the way. And who is God to take the heavens leaving us only with the earth. God opts for diversity and all the struggles, battles and discord it brings. For extreme unity, a totalitarian unity distorts the belief that we were created in the Holy One's image into a belief that we are God in essence.
Better to babble on, than be "Borg" in the hive.
*EDITOR'S NOTE: Consult your local 'Trekkie' for an in-depth explanation of the Borg, a collective of assimilated, bionic beings incapable of expressing independent thought or taking independent action.