A Sermon for Noach
This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Noach, and it includes two very famous stories (and a lot of genealogies). The first of the well-known stories is Noah and the Flood and the second is the Tower of Babel.
Tonight, I’d like to focus on the latter of the two.
The story of the Tower of Babel is only 9 verses long, and it appears in the 11th chapter of Genesis. Here is the entire account:
Everyone on earth had the same language and used the same words.
And as the people migrated from the East, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there.
They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them so they’re strong.”—Brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar.—
And they said, “Come, let’s build a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, so that we can make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered [like nothing] all over the world.”
Adonai came down to look at the city and tower that the people had built,
and Adonai said, “If, as a single people with a shared language, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they can think of will be out of their reach.
Let us go down and confound their speech, so that they won’t be able to understand one another.”
And so, Adonai scattered them from that place all over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city.
That is why it was called Babel, because there Adonai confounded the speech of the whole earth; and from there Adonai scattered them over the world.
Now, based on what I’ve been taught and everything I’ve studied and read, this story has been pretty much exclusively understood as an account of humanity dooming itself by arrogantly attempting to reach God in the heavens.
In his commentary on this story, Rashi wonders in earnest which generation had sinned more egregiously: the generation of the flood, which- as you might recall- was wiped out because of its violence and corruption, or the generation that built the Tower, which Rashi describes as having stretched forth their hand to war with God.
Rashi decides that it was the Tower generation that was guilty of the worse sin and adds that the only reason the Tower generation was simply dispersed and not wiped off the face of the earthy by a catastrophic flood was the fact that they had committed their sin through peaceful and cooperative means rather than the murderous violence of the Flood generation. Rashi explains that the dispersion of the people who built the tower and the imposition of many different languages upon them were meant to be devastating punishments.
Most of Jewish tradition and Western culture appears to agree with Rashi’s assessment and has interpreted the story as a cautionary tale that warns it’s listeners to act with humility lest their arrogance doom them and their collaborators to lives of confusion and inconsequentiality. Basically, the story of the tower of Babel has become a Jewish version of the Icarus myth and serves to remind all of us of a time when humanity’s goals were crushed because they had foolishly attempted to fly too close to the sun.
Don’t believe me? Here’s an example of just how pervasive this interpretation is. As I prepared for this sermon, I came across a newspaper article from the August 16th 1969 edition of the Redlands Daily Facts. This article appears on the top of page 2 and is titled “Having Been to the Moon, We Might Get Too Overconfident.” It begins with these incredible sentiments, “If we can send men to the moon, we can do anything. Have you heard- or spoken- words to that effect since Neil Armstrong took his ‘giant leap for mankind’? Many people have. There seems to be a widespread conviction that man has now established his competence to accomplish any feat he chooses.”
The author spends the next paragraphs worrying about this alleged epidemic of overconfidence and then continues, “...it is a little frightening to hear people boasting that man can now do anything he wants to do. The Greeks had a word for this kind of immoderate self-confidence. They called it hubris. And they believed that wherever man was guilty of hubris, he tempted the gods to teach him a lesson. The ancient Hebrews had a similar insight. Their recognition of the dangers inherent in human presumption is reflected in the biblical story of the tower of Babel.”
Somewhere along the way, everyone decided that the only way to understand the story of the Tower of Babel is to see a people who were filled with hubris and who attempted to grab hold of something that wasn’t meant for them.
Well, in the spirit of hubris, tonight I would like to assert that 3000 years of commentators have been reading this story incorrectly and that I know how it’s meant to be read.
You see, I believe that this isn’t a cautionary story of sin and punishment but is instead a inspirational tale of human’s succeeding and being offered another challenge after proving just how capable they are.
A few chapters before the Tower of Babel, we are told that the world had become so corrupt that God needed a creation- redo. And so God unleashed the waters that had been held back by the deep and by the firmament of the heavens, and God allowed the world to return to the way it had been on the dawn of the 2nd day of creation. Everything was reset, including humanity.
And then, according to our Torah, only a few centuries later, humans were skilled enough, collaborative enough, and aspirational enough to build not only a city for themselves but also a tower that reached beyond everything they had experienced. It was a remarkable and swift evolution!
What if we are meant to see the dispersion not as a punishment but as an opportunity to continue excelling- this time in more challenging circumstances.
What if God wasn’t angry? What if God was impressed?
This week I finished reading Ijeoma Oluo’s incredible new book, Mediocre. In this truly remarkable and challenging text, Oluo writes about systemic issues like white supremacy and patriarchy which, she argues, have been poisoning and defining our society for centuries if not longer. She writes that our collective failure to overturn oppressive structures like these comes not only from a lack of conviction but also a lack of imagination. She writes that in this country, “We are stuck in these cycles of reactionary… oppression because we have not tried anything new. We have become convinced that there is only one way to be... We are afraid to imagine something better.”
And so we come back to Babel.
What if God was impressed by the fact that only a relatively small number of generations after having been all but wiped out, humanity had come together to build something incredible, something never before seen. What if God thought to Themself, “If they could do this when they were speaking the same language and all living in proximity, then I think they’re ready for the next level of challenge.”
What if God was inspired by the people’s ability to imagine and decided to create an opportunity for them to build other beautiful, transcendent things.
As I mentioned before, as I prepared for tonight’s sermon, I went looking through historical newspapers, and as I searched for mentions of the Tower of Babel, I found example after example of people describing multi-lingual and diverse neighborhoods as Towers of Babel. It was very clear that for these authors, existing in a diverse society was a form punishment that should be avoided at all costs.
But we know that the languages we speak and the cultures we encounter influence the way that we understand and see the world… which means that by giving humanity the ability to speak many languages, God was also giving them and-by extension- us the ability to imagine the world in many new and diverse ways.
What if the failure wasn’t in building the tower or in trying to imagine something that could reshape the world as they knew it?
What if the failure was in seeing the results of that endeavor as our being punished instead of what it truly was, our being given the opportunity and ability to dream, imagine, and build in new and exciting ways?
It makes sense that we have clung to the idea of Babel as a cautionary tale because imagining a world that is closer to heaven- not to mention actually doing the work to build that dream- can be pretty terrifying. In fact, before they built the tower, the people of Genesis worried aloud that they would be scattered and forgotten.
It’s easier to accept that Babel is the story of hubris run amuck.
It’s easier to stay close to the ground, to keep our heads down, to assume that any glance toward something better will result in failure.
But it’s better to dream and to use our diversity of experience and knowledge- not to mention our vast imaginations- to work on creating something that could stretch all the way to God.
So, let’s not be afraid and instead let’s keep building. Let’s keep dreaming of ways to elevate our world. Let’s keep pushing ourselves and our society closer to heaven.
I believe that far from hoping we’ll fail, God is waiting for us to succeed.
Chazak Chazak V’nitchazek.
Be strong. Be strong. And let us strengthen one another.