“The Power of Unity”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Noah, is known primarily for the story of the flood that inundated the world in response to the evil actions of humankind. There is, however, a second well-known story featured in parashat Noah, concerning the arrogant people of Babel and their attempt to challenge the Al-mighty by building a tower to the heavens.

After introducing the righteous Noah and his three sons, Shem, Ham and Yafet, the Bible states in Genesis 6:11: “Va’tee’shah’chayt ha’ah’retz lif’nay ha’Eh’lo’kim, va’tee’mah’lay ha’ah’retz cha’mas,” that the earth had become corrupt before G-d, and the earth had become filled with violence. The verses that follow emphasize that “all flesh” had corrupted its ways upon the earth.

G-d subsequently informs Noah that the end of all flesh has come before Him, for the earth is filled with violence, and that He is about to destroy all the inhabitants of the earth. G-d instructs Noah to build an ark in order to save himself and his family from the flood that will inundate the world.

In Genesis 7:21, the Bible records that, tragically, all flesh that moved upon the earth had expired. Birds, animals, beasts and all creeping things that creep upon the earth, as well as all humankind had succumbed to the waters of the flood.

The building of the Tower of Babel and the subsequent developments are recorded in Genesis 11. Scripture there states (Genesis 11:1) “that the whole earth spoke one language and were of unified words,” and that the people had migrated from the east and settled in the land of Shinar. There they developed two extraordinary inventions, bricks that were glazed and mortar that served as cement. These “high-tech” advancements enabled the people to build great towers to the sky. As a result, the Torah states in Genesis 11:4 that the people called to one another and said: “Come, let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed across the whole Earth.” G-d perceives evil in the people’s motivations for this project. In Genesis 11:6, G-d says: “Behold they are one people with one language for all, and this they begin to do!… and now, nothing will be withheld from them, which they propose to do.”

Both the actions of the generation of the flood and the actions of the people of Babel are considered sinful, yet the evil actions committed by the generation of the flood are enumerated explicitly, while the actions of the tower builders remained unstated.

The commentators are divided in their efforts to account for the difference. Although some suggest that the tower builders were punished for a moral trespass, others see their violation as a religious offense. However, all of the commentators agree that the sin of the generation of the flood was the more serious offense.

A well-known Midrash (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 24) sees a grave moral shortcoming on the part of the builders of the tower. The Midrash states that when a worker fell from the tower and was killed, no one paid attention, but, if a brick dropped and was shattered, the people would cease their work and wail. Their sin was not only the overly high esteem in which they held their material achievements, but the total lack of regard that they had for the sanctity of human life.

The Ibn Ezra sees the primary sin of the tower builders as their desire to “let us make us a name.” They were arrogant and self-centered in single-minded pursuit of self-glorification. They wanted to erect a tower that would be a proud landmark, visible to all, near and far, to serve as a monument to their prestige.

The contemporary commentator, Umberto Cassuto, regards the sins of the tower builders as both moral and religious. Arrogance reflects inner ethical corruption and is despised in G-d’s eyes. Furthermore, in their defiance, the people displayed lack of faith in the Divine plans of Heaven.

The Sforno suggests that the sinfulness of the tower builders is not specifically elucidated because G-d wished to stop the tower builders before they committed even worse evils. G-d’s actions were to serve as a kind of preventative justice, similar to that applied to the stubborn and rebellious son (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), who is punished to prevent more serious crimes that he might commit in the future.

According to the Sforno, the crime of the tower builders was their desire to create a totally authoritarian society. By forcing uniformity upon the people, there could be no hope for diversity. Only with diversity is there a chance for controversy and discussion. Different languages and views allow truth to ultimately emerge. The Sforno writes:

If they had their way, that cult of idolatry upon which they decided, would have become obligatory for the entire human race, and nobody would have had the opportunity to discover and recognize his true Creator. The presence of disagreement between the people about idol worship, however, might eventually bring the people to realize that there must be a Supreme G-d, and through their acknowledgment, harmony and order would be restored to the world.

Rashi sums up the differences between the two stories in his inimitable manner. Commenting on Genesis 11:9, Rashi notes:

Now, which sin is more severe, that of the generation of the flood, or that of the generation of the disunion (the builders of the Tower of Babel)? These [the generation of the flood] did not send forth their hand against that which is fundamental [they failed to control their lusts, but they did not lack belief in the fundamental truths], while these [the tower builders] did send forth their hand against that which is fundamental, to wage war against G-d. Yet [the people of the generation of the flood] were washed away, while [the tower builders] were not obliterated from the world. But [the severity of the punishment of the generation of the flood, in contrast to the generation of the tower builders is due to the fact] that the generation of the flood was violent, and there was hostility between them. That is why they were obliterated. But [the tower builders] would behave with love and friendship among themselves, as it says (Genesis 11:1), “the whole earth spoke one language and were of unified words.” You have thus learned that conflict is hateful and peace is great.

No one could have said it better.

Rabbi Simeon the son of Halafta is cited in the Mishnah Ukzin 3:12 as saying: The Holy One, Blessed be He, has not found a greater vessel to sustain Israel than peace, as it is written (Psalms 29-11), “The L-rd will give strength to His people, the L-rd will bless His people with peace.”

May conflict between peoples cease forever, and may peace prevail upon all the Earth!

May you be blessed.