Parshat Noach: John Lennon and the Tower of Babel

Imagine – John Lennon
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living for today
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

ImagineThis timeless song touches the heart of many. John Lennon shares his vision of a unified humanity living together with nothing to fight about, where war is a thing of the past and people have more in common than not, where everyone speaks the same language and there are no more misunderstandings – in a word: peace. The song is powerful because the vision is powerful; we all share the deep longing to return to the original, natural state of the world, before all the mistakes and divisions. After all, we all come from the same father and mother. As the Mishnah in Sanhedrin (4:5) expresses, “Therefore Humanity was created with a single being…for the sake of peace between the creations, so that one can not say to another, ‘my father was better than your father.’”

By opening with the story of the common origin of Humanity, the Torah ought to pre-empt any possibility of racism or prejudice. But John Lennon’s song, which remains in the realm of the imagination, shows us how far the world is from the acknowledgement that we all are brothers and sisters. The world is rife with war and conflict, hatred and separation. The vision of brotherhood seems farther away than ever. A study of the story of the Tower of Babel can help us come to terms with our divided reality and its consequences.

The Tower of Babel – Megalomania or Cowardice?

Tower of Babel“And behold, all the land was of one language and one mindset… and they said, ‘Come, let us build for ourselves a city and a tower that reaches the heavens, and we will make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed across the whole land’” (Bereshit 11:1,4).

These verses describe the first revolt of history. Humanity gathered together and decided to invest all their efforts in the building of a tower. Why specifically a tower? What did they intend to do with it?

Rashi describes the revolutionary movement as one of megalomania: “They came together under one council and said, “Let us ascend to the heavens and make war on it” (Rashi, Bereshit 11:1). The humans understood that though individually they are powerless in the face of the creator, working as team in a united effort they can be mighty. The tower is an assault on the heavenly domain!” G-d, in response, disperses humanity and confuses their language, thwarting the builders’ designs.

Rashbam, on the other hand, interprets the uprising differently. He sees the building of the tower as a sign of humanity’s fearfulness and their hesitancy to realize their full potential, not as an attempt to overstep the limits of their power. “According to the text’s plain meaning, what was the sin of the generation of the dispersion? … Because G-d commanded [humans], ‘Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and occupy it,’ but they chose a place for themselves to settle, ‘lest we become dispersed across the land.’ Therefore he decreed that they be spread out.” (Rashbam on Bereshit 11:4).

According to the Rashbam, G-d is directing humanity to greatness. He commands them to go out to all corners of the world, to develop different languages, societies, nations and cultures, from the Eskimos, who learn to survive in the world’s coldest climates, to those who dwell in deserts or labor in their fields. But humans are afraid to fulfill their mission. They gather together, in one city, in one language, in one tower, and refuse to accept their duty. G-d responds by pointing them back in the right direction: “And G-d dispersed them from there across the surface of the Earth…therefore the place was called Babel, because there Hashem mixed (Balal) the languages of all the world, and from there Hashem dispersed them across the surface of the earth” (Bereshit 11:8-9).

The message that arises from Rashbam’s understanding of the story is the opposite of the meaning that Rashi sees in it:

Rashi’s understanding creates the impression that ideally, Hashem would have been happy to have people living as one, but humanity blew it by uniting against G-d. But Rashbam’s view is surprising, fascinating and meaningful: it is not the ambitious desire to conquer the Heaven which condemns the tower, rather it is human passivity and fear to conquer the Earth which provokes divine intervention.

Through Rashbam’s understanding, we see that the demographic and geographic dispersal of humanity is not a punishment, but a way to help humanity achieve its purpose. The dispersal creates a wealth of languages and cultures. The tower is called “Babel” because following the mixing up of the languages, there was such cultural difference between people that they simply could not understand one another: “One man could not hear the language of his fellow” (Bereshit 11:7). The purpose of this confusion was to break the national-cultural uniformity: “And G-d said, ‘they are one nation and one language, and see what they have started to do – now there will be nothing to stop them from anything they choose to do’” (Bereshit 11:6). The humans wanted to live together as one, but Hashem wanted people to split up and expand over all the world.

Today, we feel the devastating consequences of the separation of mankind: war, hatred, tension and suspicions. What was G-d looking for in the dispersal of the nations? Why was it so important that the unity be broken?

Overcoming Big Brother

The Kabbalistic metaphor for creation gives us a new lens through which to view the story of the Tower of Babel. The universe, according to kabbalah, was originally a perfect unified harmony of creation. The “vessels,” the physical world, received the divine light and were filled by the flow of divine abundance. But eventually, the flow of divine abundance became too great for the vessels and they shattered. The divine light which they had contained burst out in every direction, and to this day those sparks of divine light are hidden throughout reality, imprisoned in shells of darkness. This metaphor is one of the basic foundations of Kabbalah and chassidut. Everything which exists in the world has a spark of divine light hidden within it, and it is our job to seek them out, to rescue them from the dark shells which imprison them, and, in so doing, to raise them up. The goal of humanity in this world is to fix the vessels, to raise up the sparks, and to bring the sparks back together, thus re-unifying reality.

The story of the Tower of Babel can be understood through this metaphor. The initial phase of the united humanity is parallel to the unbroken vessels receiving and containing the Divine light. The breaking of that unity and the division of the people across the earth corresponds to the breaking of the vessels. In the historical reality in which we live, nations and cultures are splintered and at odds with one another just as the sparks of light are dispersed and lost, hidden in a broken world. How awesome and powerful is the notion that in order to repair our fractured reality and return the world to its original state of unity, the spark of holiness hidden in every single nation and culture must be revealed and elevated.

If this is the case, if our ultimate purpose is to rejoin in unity, why did we have to go through the terrible experience of the division of reality? What was the purpose of thousands of years of nations seeking each others’ blood? What was the reason for the breaking of the vessels?

It could be suggested that before the shattering of the vessels, the whole was unified, but was also uniform. The dispersion and distance enabled each nation to develop in its own path, and so we have arrived today at immense cultural variety and human diversity. This is the primary wealth of existence. Strict uniformity and conformity, totally devoid of any individualistic opportunity or expression, tends to characterize brutal dictatorships and totalitarian regimes. In his classic opus “1984,” George Orwell portrays the “unity” that Big Brother seeks to instill as a nightmare.

People representing diverse professionsThe deep message of the story of the Tower of Babel is that G-d does not desire a world where everyone is the same. G-d directs us to discover our own unique identity, both individually and as cultures and societies. The great challenge is to protect our individuality in the context of a communal life, to preserve our personal uniqueness while living in cooperation with the diversity of humanity.

Receiving Without Losing My Self

“Who is wise?” asks the Mishna in Pirkei Avot (4:1), “one who learns from everybody.” But there is a constant tension between my desire to guard my own independence, and my ability to give and receive in my interactions with others. We must seek the balance within this tension. A person must know how to define his own boundaries, to be able to say who he is and what he believes in, because if his answers are vague or uncertain, he runs the risk of losing his identity, and one who loses his individual identity also loses the ability to recognize anyone else’s. A person must be focused on his own place. Only when one is able to give an honest and confident answer to the question, “Who am I?” will he be able to see others for who they are. The same is true of societies and nations: only when we know with certainty who we are will we be able to have peace with our neighbors.

This article was translated from the Hebrew by Netzach Sapir.

Rav Dr. Yakov NagenRav Dr. Yakov Nagen (Genack) is Rosh Kollel at the Hesder Yeshiva of Otniel and holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He also published several books on Jewish philosophy, and numerous articles on the Talmud, the philosophy of Halacha, and Jewish spirituality. Rav Dr. Nagen is a member of Beit Hillel.

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