Most of this week’s Torah drashot will be about Noah - because it’s parashat Noah - and because Noah’s Ark is a majestic, iconic story which most of us were first told as children, which only takes on darker and more philosophical layers with an adult read. [As an aside - one (other) drasha this week which isn’t on Noah is taking place on Shabbat afternoon at my home with Sofia Freudenstein - my brilliant, deep-thinking, hilarious fellow rabbinical student at Maharat, who is visiting from America. If you’re in Borehamwood, I highly recommend coming along - details above].
But here, I’d like to look at what happens in the wake of the Flood story, when “Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words”. The ensuing story is probably familiar to us:
“…they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.” God came down to look at the city and tower that humanity had built, and God said, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” Thus God scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because there God confounded [Heb: balal ] the speech of the whole earth; and from there God scattered them over the face of the whole earth.” Bereishit 11:4-9
In this concise, clipped story, we hear a strong message of crime and punishment, but are not really sure what the crime was. What is so bad about building a tower, making a name, or ensuring unity? Are these humans deserving of being forcibly dispersed around the world? Did they deserve becoming a planet-full of bewildered refugees?
Rabbi Tzi Yehuda Berlin, the 19th Century Eastern European thinker known as the Netziv, gives the following answer: “the purpose of the tower was to look out upon the distance over all their dwellings [to ensure] that none would split off into another land”. In other words, it is not just unity which the people aspired towards, but an enforced conformity. Judy Klitsner, in her excellent book “Subversive Sequels in the Bible”, offers many proof-texts beyond the Netziv, and posits that the builders of the tower were in fact the first authoritarian society, valuing fallen bricks more than fallen humans (Midrash Pirkei de Rebbi Eliezer). Sandwiched between two genealogies (a fancy name for family tree lists), the story of Bavel is conspicuous in its absence of names, and absence of individual identity.
Horrified at the prospect of a humanity devoid of individuality, God puts a swift stop to the building, for if “this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.” And we, with the hindsight of history, know well what authoritarian societies have reached towards. Ultimately, throughout the Tanakh, God steps back, like a parent allowing a child to make its own mistakes as they grow. And human history has built several more Bavels, to tragic ends. But here in Bereishit, our book of etiology (stories which explain our origins), we are shown how God avoided what could have become the world’s first dictatorship which values homogeneity, with all the terrifying implications that could follow.