“Vayehi kol ha’aretz safa ahat ud’varim ahadim” – “Everyone on Earth had the same language and the same words” (Genesis 11:1)
The beauty and poetic resonance of this verse is revealed while saying it out loud in Hebrew. An ideal world is set in front of us in seven words. A world where everybody seems to speak the same language and is able to understand each other.
While reading the story of the “Tower of Babel” written in only nine verses, our senses are in demand. One can see the efforts of the people focused on their almost holy task. We may also have the vision of a famous painting, the one by Bruegel the Elder for example, where the Tower looks so much like the Coliseum with its destroyed structure on the top. One can hear the noise of the builders assembling bricks, imagine their texture, or listen to their conversation in a common tongue. And while reading or chanting out loud the verses of the Torah, appreciating their melody.
The tale – almost a fairy tale – has inspired layers of comments. It strikes the imagination whatever your age, regardless of the time you are living in. It is like a riddle that calls for interpretation. One might think that everything has been said on such a famous story, but isn’t it our duty to carry on the chain of interpretation? Interpreting the texts is a way of taking part in the revelation as Emmanuel Levinas expounds: “It is (…) as though every person, through his uniqueness, were the guarantee of the revelation of a unique aspect of truth”. It is as though “the reader is a scribe”.
It recounts an ambitious human project: reaching heaven. From a literary point of view, it is composed with an almost perfect symmetry, four verses describe the aliyah – ascent of the people and then the five following, the yeridah – descent, first of God to check what the people is doing and then of the people itself.
The yozma – enterprise, can be seen at first glance as a holy mission, full of love and fervour for God. Why is it that instead of being praised by God for their enterprise He decided to destroy it and scatter the people? God probably considered the initiative as originating in too much chutzpah – a kind of misplaced pride and excessive self-confidence, that God eventually despised and opposed the project by placing a serious stumbling block in front of the people.
Nechama Leibowitz explains as follows why the project was rejected by God: because it was a way to “proclaim human greatness and “immortality” instead of serving “human needs””.
Building a tower which reaches heaven focuses all human efforts, the task surpasses any other consideration, and no compassion is involved anymore: “The tower had seven steps from the east, and seven steps from the west. The bricks were hauled up from one side, the descent was on the other. If a man fell down and died, no attention was paid to him, but if one brick fell down, they would sit and weep and say: woe betide us, when will another one be hauled in its place?” (Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer 24).
This story is not without reminders of the “human price” paid by the medieval cathedral builders and probably also by the builders of the Temple of Jerusalem…
While thinking of the “Tower of Babel” as a draft project for the Temple, it reminds me of something I experienced last summer in Jerusalem.
A friend invited me to a sermon slam competition. Taking place a few days before Tisha B’av the chosen theme was linked to the destruction of the Temple: “Devastation”. The event took place in a private home in the old city. A group of forty young people, most of them national religious Israeli-American Jews, in their ‘20s and early ‘30s, gathered there. Everything started very gently, then our host explained that the purpose of this event was to raise money for the reconstruction of the Temple and that he sponsored an organisation he had created with a group of friends. These very “welcoming and loving people” were advocating nothing less than the destruction of the mosques of the Temple Mount and the reconstruction of the third Temple, so that the Messiah would come.
Similarly to our biblical story, the group of “slamists” believed they were on a holy mission, which they were very proud to accomplish. Their loving-kindness was exclusively deserved by their fellow Jews, the beliefs and feelings of the “others” didn’t matter. They used their skills “to make themselves a name” (Genesis 11:4) and their fine rhetoric to convince people to follow their cause.
The Torah’s story warns us about the consequences of this kind of behaviour. Eventually God “confounded the speech of the whole earth and scattered them over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:9).
The French-Israeli Masorti Rabbi Alain Michel gives a very meaningful interpretation to the scattering of the people. According to him, the problem of the people was not their use of a common language – safah ahat, but the expression that follows: devarim akhadim – their use of “unique words” which usually ends up in a unique thought, what is called here religious fundamentalism.
This very last verse resonates deeply also with the future story of the Israelite people after the Exile. A people who lived throughout history in a permanent tension between assimilation – hitbolelut (root bll) and faithfulness to its common language – expressed in the written and oral Torah. For most of our Jewish fellows, Hebrew (and surely Aramaic) were not their mother tongue.
While spending energy in translating our sacred texts and striving to make sense of the heritage that has been passed on to us, accompanied by sensitive teachers, we are in dialogue with God. Even if most of the time we feel like “bulls in a china shop”, these beautiful texts sustain us and incidentally, some sparks of light reach us, which I believe, is the best therapy against devarim akhadim – a dogmatic thought.
Student rabbi Daniela Touati
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.