I’ve wanted to do a drash on the Tower of Bavel for a few years. Here are the questions that begin our journey:
§ What does it mean that the story is recounted to us in Parshat Noach, after we hear that people were so bad, that Noach was so good, that all were drowned save the family Noach?
§ What is the significance of the Tower story coming after that strange story of Noach’s drunkenness and the kindness of Shem and Japhteth and the evil of Ham?
§ What does it mean that the story after the Tower is Lech Lecha and Avraham?
§ What does it mean that the people of the flood were drowned and the people of the tower were dispersed?
I’ve always experienced a lot of energy and curiosity about Parshat Noach’s recounting of the Tower of Bavel. Two thirds of the way through the Torah’s recitation of the descendants of Noach come 9 pesukim (lines) that tell the tale of the Tower of Bavel. The story is inserted just before the recitation of the line of Shem son of Noach that leads to Avram son of Terach. Chazal suggests that the story of the tower is the last of the creation stories. Right after this story we turn to learning about Avraham Avinu (our father Abraham). We turn from the story of our universal creation to the story of our people’s beginnings. The Tower of Bavel is the story of the creation of the peoples of the world. It is the story of how the people settled the earth.
After the flood, all the people, all together, same language, same words, roam the land. They find a place to settle. They build their city complete with the tallest tower in the world, by definition a skyscraper. God – or the embodiment of holiness – is aware of this and says out loud – If this is how they act when they are one nation and one language …. Literally lo yibzar mahem col asher yizmu laasot commonly translated as “then nothing they may propose to do will be out of their reach.” An alternative translation that remains true to the Hebrew is “if this is what they do when they have one language then nothing will prevent them from setting things like this in motion again.” In other words, they will keep going down this path that will not lead them to holiness … And so God confounds their speech and scatters them over the face of the whole earth and they stop building the city and settle the earth to presumably have a better chance at holiness. The next story is the particular story of Avraham’s relationship to holiness.
Every commentary I’ve read suggests the people were evil, arrogant, and psychopaths. A Midrash tells of the people caring more about the loss of a brick than of a person. I find myself curious about the people, curious about God. What is their story? What is God’s part? Every year I search for a commentary with a different view; a voice that doesn’t see this as the story of an angry God and a people behaving badly. I’ve yet to find one. I want to know the people’s point of view. I want to understand God’s part in this outcome. The parsha never says God is angry; it is the rabbinic commentary that suggests the people are evil and God angry. An alarm in side me goes off when one side is too right and the other too evil. What if there is another way to understand all of this?
So let’s start here. Judaism, in fact all religions, are about our aspirations to holiness. The term God is the anthropormorphosization of holiness. Our conceptions of God are metaphors for our understanding of holiness and the bible is full of stories/metaphors about humanities discoveries related to holiness.
The story of the tower of Bavel is the last of the stories about the creation of this world where holiness is embedded in a physical form. In the first story we learn of the embedding of spirit in earth that forms the human. Vayipach nishmat Chaim, vayihi ha adam lnefesh chayah – God blew into the nostrils the breath of life and Adam became a living being. Our creation story is clear -- we are spiritual beings in a physical experience or more accurately we are embodied spirit being. Our task is to reclaim our relationship to holiness while being in a body.
The second creation story (in the first man and woman are created together) comes to a crescendo as we realize that as embodied spirits we do not know how to distinguish between good and evil. It seems that evil is a component of the physical and does not exist in the spirit realm. As embodied spirits, evil is our temptress. We are easily fooled into thinking that evil is good. Evil we quickly discover is an essential component of being alive. As embodied spirits at the time of creation, we are inexperienced at being alive. We are inexperienced at ‘living’ with all that is alive – including evil. Is it a coincidence that evil is live spelled backwards? Our relationship with and to evil is an essential aspect of our sojourn here on earth. Our relationship with evil is core to our mission to bring holiness into this physical experience (the purpose of a holy life).
One take on our creation story is that it is a narrative of how we get ‘fooled’ by evil and so get further away from our unification/our alignment with holiness. First we are ‘fooled’ by a snake (we discover we are naked and hide from holiness), then by a beloved (we get ousted from the garden and no longer live with holiness full time), then by envy (we kill or liberate our brother’s holiness and forever are branded as a murderer), then by each other (flooded and drowned to death with only the finest part of ourselves, the part closest to goodness, surviving).
One can almost hear the soliloquy: Evil is for real and we only come to recognize it as evil when we experience ourselves further from holiness than we were before. We were in the Garden in perfect harmony with holiness and then our curiosity, our desire to know what the snake knew, separated us from holiness. As Cain, we thought that there was only so much holiness to go around and that we could get someone else’s holiness by killing them. That only led to being marked as unholy. We then lived together and being together only brought us farther away from holiness. So far away, that there was no way back. And in a Darwinian move – Noach, the holiest survived.
The final chapter in the creation story – the final chapter in the tale of how spirit embodied in earth is the Tower of Bavel. The brick tower to holiness – which we thought was we. It is about delusions, it is about how we believe we are doing one thing, but actually we are in the grips of evil moving us farther away from holiness.
So after the shock of the flood and discovering that hanging out with each other brought us to evil and destruction – we gingerly cling to each other and wander the earth. Eventually we feel a little more comfortable and we decide to settle in the land and use the land to build. We are all one; we are united in our sameness in our comfort with each other in our unity. And from that unity we decide to build a tower to that unity – one tower reaching up to the heavens. We will make a name for ourselves. We’ve forgotten that we are here to integrate holiness into the physical – we become enamored of ourselves, of our sameness, of our likeness, of our ability to create out of this physical dimension.
Holiness, that ever-calling, signaling beacon, that true oneness that is a siren to our souls, recognizes that our mistaken notion of what it means to build ourselves a name (like God), will lead us in a direction that is not towards true holiness. And so our language is made different and we are scattered to inhabit all parts of the earth. We are to own our differences from each other. We are to learn how to find holiness in the differences because when we look only to the similarities we build towers to our selves.
So here is a take on the Tower of Bavel. It is the final chapter of the beginning of spirits’ sojourn in the physical. After this narrative – the one that says that there are many different ways to holiness and that it is through our differences that we will be holy – we begin the story of our people’s unique journey to holiness.
A teacher of mine – Yvonne Agazarian has this to say about how systems move towards holiness – Systems grow, develop and transform through discriminating between the apparently similar and integrating the apparently different. In other words, we grow to holiness not by glorying in our similarities or being disgusted by our differences. Rather we grow into holiness by realizing that we are not so similar and not so different from each other. We are different and one, similar and many. The more we discover the depth of this truth – the holier our embrace on life and the less our propensity towards evil.
So what the Rabbis do with the story is call out the evil. Similarly I want to call out the distortions, the moments when the people in the tale tried to be more than they were. I want to tease out the layers of truth. I believe that when truth is layered and people do not struggle with that complexity, evil creeps in. When I try to stay the same as those around me, I avoid reckoning with the voice inside me that calls me towards being different, more true to what I hear as holiness’s siren. I want to be able to be open when everything inside me wants to shut down and judge. I want to hear all sides of the story, really hear. I want to learn people’s stories, understand how they acted and make sense of the connection between how they act and the pieces of themselves they’ve disowned. I want to understand how all involved are responsible for putting the story into motion. I want to hold the seemingly irreconcilable positions until I can feel love for all involved, and compassion for our human journey that sometimes keeps us stuck in our love of a version of evil that keeps us from embracing and learning from our shared lives’ journey.
Noach and his sons leave us with a story of one way to deal with evil – when Noach has succumbed to being less than he can be (some say he was drunk, nude in his tent). The brother that tells the tale is punished and the brothers that do not promote the sin, but rather cover it, are blessed and progeny of both form a union that leads to the Mashiach. Whenever I tell a story about another whom I have judged, am doing it in a gossipy way – or is our modern version of covering the responsibility to make sense, to find the path to holiness embedded in the false choice of evil and bring that out – as a lesson for myself, and those around me? Each one of us will have to decide and hopefully in our decision we will discover whether we’ve taken the route of the people who built the tower – and will never get to holiness in that way – or the root of Shem and Japhteth and in our union with others bring light into the world.
Some questions for us:
Where is it that you idolize sameness or similarities?
What differences do you demonize?
What happens when you go deeper to see the differences in the similarities and similarities in the differences?
And if you’d like to get more personal, I invite you to choose someone you know who is different from you in a way that turns your stomach. Imagine they are in your life as part of holiness’s curriculum – they are in your life to remind you of the Tower of Bavel, to remind you that we will not reach holiness by glorifying how we are the same as others. Rather we will reach holiness/peace by reckoning with how we are different, how we are meant to live in different places, to have our languages be different and to still exist in this world together. How does that effect your experience of this other?
In conclusion – I began this dvar because I’ve long played with the idea that contrary to what the Rabbis of old suggest, the people of the tower were not evil and that God was not angry. My teacher and colleague Rabbi Stone teaches that when something the Rabbis say makes no sense to us – it may be that how we’re reading it is what doesn’t make sense. After all, he asks, do you really think the Rabbi’s were stupid? Instead, Rabbi Stone suggests that the language of their time is probably capturing something different than what the language of our time makes of their words. And so, I am in agreement with the Rabbis. The people who built the tower were evil – they ‘forgot’ that we are embodied spirit beings and became enamored only of the physical. That is what I know of as evil; it is what we are all capable of. And God is not angry, but God or source will never go along and will always ‘steer’ us back on course towards holiness. That I think is what the Rabbi’s meant.