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2020: The Year Man Thought He Became God

Three Philosophies Behind the Tower of Babel

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

    2255 views
  • October 23, 2020
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  • 5 Cheshvan 5781
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Class Summary:

This story of the Tower of Babel has long intrigued scholars and historians alike who have even gone so far as attempt to locate its exact location in Iraq. What exactly was their crime? Why was G-d upset with the idea of people constructing a united city and tower? 

A strange passage in Talmud tells us what happened to the Tower. A third of it was burnt; a third of it was submerged in the earth; and a third of it remains intact till this very day.

But why? Why did it happen that way? And what is the lesson here?

There are three explanations for the sin behind the Tower: it was a war against G-d; it was the first communist totalitarian regime; it replaced G-d with science. The first dimension has been destroyed from the consciousness of civilization. The second is submerged in the earth and occasionally rears its ugly head. The third aspect is alive and well.

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In the West

One morning Brezhnev (the Soviet communist leader) looked out the Kremlin window and saw the sun. "Sun," he said, "Who is the best man in all the world." "You are! You are!" said the sun.

At noon, Brezhnev again looked out the Kremlin window, saw the sun, and asked "Who is the best man in all the world." "You are! You are!" said the sun.

At sunset, Brezhnev again looked out the Kremlin window, saw the sun and asked again, "Who is the best man in all the world."

"Well, it sure isn't you," said the sun, "you see, I'm in the West now and you can't catch me."

The Tower

In the shadow of the drama of the Great Flood lies a mysterious and often overlooked story. It is the story of the Tower of Babel.

The story is short, no more than nine verses.[1] But it is of great importance, because it is the root of one of the most enduring conversations of mankind in determining the nature of government.

The story goes like this: There is a group of people who settle in a valley in the land of Shinar, in ancient Babylonia, modern-day Iraq, in the large valley between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The Torah tells us that at that time all people spoke only one language.[2] In great companionship, they embark upon the most daring building project ever attempted: to build a city with a Tower that will reach heaven, and have all humanity settle there.

G-d is not happy about this project. He confuses their languages, giving each his own unique language, and effectively foiling any cooperation.[3] This led to infighting and chaos. Soon, they abandon the project and spread out all over the planet, each forming his own civilization and culture, with his own language.

This story has long intrigued scholars and historians alike who have even gone so far as attempt to locate its exact location in Iraq. What exactly was their crime?[4] Why was G-d upset with the idea of a homogenous unified civilization?

What Happened to the Tower?

The Torah itself, although it tells us the builders were dispersed, does not say what became of the Tower. But the Talmud, authored in Babylonia in the 5th century CE, in the same region where the Tower was built, does tell us the about the fate of the gigantic Tower they built.[5] In the words of the Talmud:

סנהדרין קט, א: אמר רבי יוחנן, מגדל—שליש נשרף, שליש נבלע, שליש קיים.

Rabbi Yochanan said: The Tower—a third [the top third of the Tower] was burnt; a third [the lowest third] was submerged in the earth; and a third remains intact.

The Midrash is more specific:[6]

בראשית רבה לח, ח: אמר רבי חייא בר אבא: המגדל הזה שבנו שלישו נשרף, ושלישו שקע, ושלישו קיים. ואם תאמר שהוא קטן? רבי הונא בשם רבי אידי אמר: כל מי שהוא עולה על ראשו רואה דקלים שלפניו כאלו חגבים.

Rabbi Chiya the son of Abba said: This Tower which they built, one third of it was burnt; one third sunk into the ground; and one third of it still remains in existence. Lest you think the remainder of the Tower is small? Rabbi Huna said in the name Rabbi Eidi, that if one ascends to the top of the remaining Tower and looks down, the palm trees look like grasshoppers.

It is fascinating to note that at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century large excavations were performed in the area of ancient Babylonia—in the territory between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq. The city of Ur—the birthplace of Abraham, who was 48 years old when the Tower was built—was uncovered. Archeologists have discovered a very tall Tower, which may have been the remnant of the Tower of Babel discussed in the Talmud and Midrash.[7]

But what is the significance of the fact that one third of the Tower burnt, one third was buried, and one third remained intact? Why did it happen that way?

And why do the Sages make a point of telling us this narrative? How did they even know this, when the Torah does not state it?

A War on G-d, Individuality, and Providence

Perhaps there is a far deeper message here.

The Midrash provides three explanations for the sin of the Tower of Babel: [8]

  1. The purpose of the Tower was to defeat G-d. The people built a Tower upon which to ascend to the heavens and once and for all lay G-d to eternal rest.[9]
  2. Another explanation is that the purpose of the tower was to create a totalitarian homogenous society, with a single culture, a uniform vocabulary, an identical way of thinking, and equal distribution of wealth.[10] The Torah begins the narrative with these words: “Now the entire earth was of one language and uniform words.”[11] The Midrash explains: “What is in this person’s hand belongs also to the other person’s hand; and what is in the other’s hand belongs to him as well.” It was the first attempt for a socialist society.
  3. A third opinion in Midrash is that the Tower was a defense against a future flood. The people felt that by every so often[12] the sky begins to fall, causing tremendous flooding. The Tower was intended to support the sky, so that it would not collapse again in the future. Their “uniform words” represented a uniform plan to protect themselves against nature’s dangers.

 

Gone, Buried, Alive

Now we will understand the depth of the words of the sages about what happened to the three parts of the Tower. The Rabbis were addressing not only the physical properties of the Tower but also the three ideas which fueled it. One of these ideas was completely burnt and destroyed; the other idea was buried, but not destroyed; every so often it rears its head. Finally, the third idea motivating the Tower stand tall and proud to this very day.

The first motivation behind the Tower—to fight the Almighty, viewed the Creator as a pagan capricious creature who can be appeased through human sacrifices and all types of gifts, and who can also be destroyed. In their ancient primitive and pagan minds, G-d was another “bully” who we can battle and annihilate.

This perspective has been burnt. Whether one calls themselves a believer or an agnostic, whether one loves G-d or has issues with Him, no one feels they can build a Tower to assassinate the Divine. That third of the Tower has been burnt; it was deleted from society.

You may recall the anecdote about the Jewish secular father who sends his boy to a Christian prep school. The first day his son returns home and tells his father that he learnt about a new concept: the trinity. To which his father responds: “There is only one G-d, and we don’t believe in Him.”

It is clear today that whether you believe or not, we are dealing with a transcendental G-d, transcending space, time, and matter, beyond human properties, who cannot be killed through warfare.

A Unified World Order

The second idea behind the Tower—to create a homogenous society—has been submerged in the earth, but every so often, it pops up. From Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire, to Karl Marx’s Socialism, the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China, and even some professors and activities in the United States of 2020, many attempts have been made to silence the differences between people, both in thought and in wealth.

Even though the idea sounds beautiful and seems like the answer to conflict, it has failed time and time again, and has produced far more disaster and bloodshed than good, because it defies human nature and it destroys human creativity. Winston Churchill said: Capitalism is the unequal distribution of wealth; communism is the equal distribution of misery.

We can never create ensuring unity by denying diversity. Diversity is sown into the fabric of existence. “Just as no two faces are alike, no two minds are alike,” the Mishna states. [13]

The Tower of Babel, according to this interpretation, was not designed to rival G-d’s existence, but to rival G-d’s undefined reality which expresses itself in the endless diversity of existence. (The very radical undefined unity of G-d is what gives birth to the endless diversity of creation.[14]) They wished to build a totalitarian tribal civilization dedicated to the principles of nationalistic homogeny; the people had to be one in all ways. This is the essence of fascist uniformity. G-d introduced a multiplicity of language, not to punish humankind, but to fashion a world of individual diversity rather than sameness.

We celebrate the 390,000 different kinds of plants; the 10,000 species of birds; the 60,000 species of trees; the 5.5 million species of insects; the 7,000 species of mammals; 34,000 species of fish, and 6,500 languages spoken, Each and every one of them make the world a diverse and beautiful place. The miracle of creation is that Unity in heaven creates diversity on earth.

There are many things which unite us: Our single Creator; shared human aspirations, needs, and feelings. We are all moved by a beautiful sunset, the smile of a child. But there is also much which divides us. And that which divides us as is as Divine as that which unites us. People are not the same, and they are not supposed to be the same.

Esperanto

Remember Esperanto? This was to be the universal language of humanity and was meant to unite the world through one language. No more Spanish, French, Russian, English, Hebrew, Bulgarian. Everyone was to speak Esperanto. It was created by an idealistic universal Jew, Eliezer (Ludwig) Zamenhof (1859-1917), from Bialystok. He felt that Esperanto would cure Anti-Semitism, as gentiles would begin to understand the Jews (ironically, all his three children were murdered in the Holocaust.). He translated the Torah into Esperanto. As of 1975, Esperanto was taught in 600 schools to 20,000 students per year; there were about 100 journals and 7500 books written in Esperanto, including translations from 65 languages. But it did not do the trick: it is all but forgotten today. People wanted their culture, their heritage, their language.

The only thing that remains from him is a street in Tel Aviv named Eliezer Zamenhof Street.

This aspect of the Tower—the belief that we can destroy diversity and create superficial oneness—has been buried in the earth; but every so often a person or movement come and try to revitalize it, to breathe a new life into a buried specimen and failed philosophy.

Misguided Rationalism

But the third philosophy behind the Tower of Babel still exists in full sight. This is the idea that we can build a Tower to prevent another flood. Consider this: Noah stood in front of the Ark for 120 years warning that G-d was going to bring a flood. Noah was mocked. Finally, the flood came.

Any thinking person should have concluded that there is a Creator who runs the world and expects people to behave in a moral, kind way; we are responsible to G-d and to the universe. Yet the people, the grandchildren of Noah, chose to blindly believe that the flood was merely a natural disaster.[15] And if it is only a fluke of nature there is no lesson to be learned from it. On the contrary, we can correct the problem, not by improving ourselves, but by properly constructing a support tower to prevent the sky from collapsing.

That third philosophy still exists, that the laws of nature are random mistakes, and there is no consciousness behind them. This part of the Tower still exists in full sight. We too, like the generation of the Tower, often deny ourselves the opportunity of seeing the inner heartbeat of life, the rhythm behind the scientific laws, the music vibrating through the laws of nature and the symmetry of physics. By taking the miracles around us and merely sending them into a science lab to be dissected as formulas, we make our lives and our world shallower and emptier. It also creates hubris and dulls our sensitivity to moral responsibility.

The fallacy exists to such an extent that "one who ascends the Tower sees palm trees as if they are grasshoppers." The miracle can be so great, that it Towers over the landscape like a palm tree. And yet the nay-sayers will minimize it to the size of a grasshopper, attributing it to nature and happenstance, not realizing that Coincidence is G-d's way of choosing to remain anonymous.

2020 was supposed to be the year Homo Deus, when man would finally assume the role of G-d. Scientists were already talking about doubling the lifespan, if not completely getting rid of death. We knew it all and can do it all. Then, out of nowhere, came a virus the size of 125 nanometers, and crippled the planet. From politicians to scientists, everyone is in the dark, just as we were 4000 years ago during the time of the Babel Tower.

Science and technology are great blessings, but they are tools. Innovations in physics do not guide us to become better people and to create a more decent world. Towers we must build, not to defeat heaven, or replace heaven, but to create a fragment of heaven on planet earth.

The Choice

You can believe that the world is the result of a random Big Bang and was just one big cosmic mistake, or you can believe that every blade of grass has been placed there by G-d and has a unique (although usually unfathomable) purpose to fulfill.

You can choose to believe that you are stuck in your job because when you were a foolish sophomore in college you randomly chose a course, or you can say that there is a unique mission that you can accomplish in your workplace, with your honesty, work ethic, and influence on your coworkers. You can choose to believe that you married your spouse because when you were naïve you fell in love and had no idea about real life, or you can believe that your spouse completes your soul and together you can overcome any obstacles and build a beautiful family. You can choose to believe that your personality is the natural result of your childhood, your parents, your gene pool, and your horoscope. You can believe that there is no such thing as free choice and all your decisions are predetermined by blind, random fate. Or you can choose to believe that there is a trace of G-d in you, a soul, that it uncorrectable, unstoppable, and capable of true greatness.

You can live in the Tower of Babel or you can cleanse the doors of perception and live in the bosom of infinite possibility. [16]

___________________________

 

[1] Genesis 11:1-9

[2] Rashi ibid. 1 says it was “loshon hakodesh,” biblical Hebrew.

[3] As Rashi explains (Genesis 11:7), “One would ask for a brick, the other would give him mortar, and the first would smash the skull of the second,” in anger.

[4] See Berishis Rabah 38:6: “The sin of the generation of the flood is explicit in the Torah; the sin of the generation of dispersion is not stated.” Cf. Rashbam to Genesis 11:4 and many more commentators.

[5] Sanhedrin 109a

[6] Bereishis Rabah 38:8

[7] See http://www.daat.ac.il/DAAT/tanach/samet/b2-2.htm

[8] Bereishis Rabah 38:6

[9] See Midrash ibid. for a few possibilities within this explanation itself.

[10] See the commentary of Haamek Davar by the Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin.

[11] Genesis 11:1

[12] Once every 1656 years, the year of the Flood counting from Adam and Eve)

[13] Sanhedrin 37a

[14] See Likkutei Sichos vol. 18 Korach and references noted there.

[15] Noah himself was still alive and around, as were his sons (Noah died 350 years after the Flood, and the Tower was built in the 340th year.)

[16] The essay is based on Benayahu (by the Ben Eish Chai) to Talmud Sanhedrin 109. Haamak Davar by the Netziv to Parshas Noach. The commentary of Rabbi Nissan Alpert to Parshas Noach (which I saw quoted in an essay by Rabbi Yissachar Frand).

Please leave your comment below!

  • MC

    Montreal Canada -3 years ago

    Thank you, beautiful and always true.

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

Essay Noach

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • October 23, 2020
  • |
  • 5 Cheshvan 5781
  • |
  • 2255 views
  • Comment

Sponsored by Attorney Zev Goldstein, Monsey, NY.
Don't pay that ticket until you speak with Attorney Zev Goldstein

Class Summary:

This story of the Tower of Babel has long intrigued scholars and historians alike who have even gone so far as attempt to locate its exact location in Iraq. What exactly was their crime? Why was G-d upset with the idea of people constructing a united city and tower? 

A strange passage in Talmud tells us what happened to the Tower. A third of it was burnt; a third of it was submerged in the earth; and a third of it remains intact till this very day.

But why? Why did it happen that way? And what is the lesson here?

There are three explanations for the sin behind the Tower: it was a war against G-d; it was the first communist totalitarian regime; it replaced G-d with science. The first dimension has been destroyed from the consciousness of civilization. The second is submerged in the earth and occasionally rears its ugly head. The third aspect is alive and well.

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