At the end of this week’s parasha we have a story which is nine verses long yet it looms large in the minds of those who are familiar with the stories of the Bible, it is the story of the tower of Babel. The Torah tells us people began to build a tower to the heavens to make a name for themselves and to avoid being scattered throughout the earth. And yet at the end of the story as a result of their efforts to build a tower their worst fears are realised as they are given different languages and scattered by God to the corners of the earth. This small story has led to much speculation amongst rabbis and scholars and they ask the question, “What was so bad about what the people were doing? Why was the building of a tower deserving of such a punishment? Surely if we had remained in one area, speaking one language with a common project, much of the conflict and division that exists in the world could be overcome or avoided altogether. So what was so bad about the tower?
Many rabbis have suggested that the answer lies in the way in which the people phrased their need to build. They did not suggest that they were building for noble purposes but rather because they wanted to make a name for themselves. They were building for fame and prestige rather than for the good of themselves or others.
Abravanel, an ancient commentator suggested that before the production to build the tower began, people lived together in harmony and peace. They shared equally in the bounties of the earth and their fortune was distributed according to need. Once the construction of the tower began, people entered into a battle for superiority, a fight for prestige and honour. Each one wanted to lay the first brick on a new level, they wanted to be the one credited for a successful design.
A second scholar, Beno Jacob suggests that it was the goals of the builders that was wrong not the fact that they were building a tower. The people had mastered the art of making bricks, moulding heat and clay but instead of using the technology to improve the city and the lives of its inhabitants they decided to use the resources to build a huge tower that reached to the heavens. They reasoned that the tower would bring them fame and glory.
The creation of the tower was no small feat. There were no natural stones in the area which they could use so the people were forced to make bricks. Hundreds of people were required to run the furnaces, hundreds to prepare the material, thousands to carry them from the furnace to the base of the tower and thousands more to carry them up to the top. It was not long, the commentators say, before the bricks and mortar became far more important than people. The building of the tower became the sole focus of the community. There was no regard for human life or for human beings beyond their usefulness to build the tower.
This story reminds us that we need to always remain focused on living in harmony with each other and our world. That technology, building and creating should be for noble purposes, to equalise, to help, to bring peace and live together with the environment and one another.
Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio