According to the Torah, all human beings are descended from Adam and Eve. Then, after humanity is wiped out in the flood, all humans are descended from Noah and his wife. Why is it so important to specify that we all share a common ancestor? According to the Mishnah, it is so that no one can say another, my father is better than yours. We are all descended from the first Primordial Human, Adam, whom the Torah describes as created in God’s image. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) Thus, equality and freedom are central concepts in our tradition.
Soon after creation, however, humanity starts to move away from this ideal. Within ten generations, human society has become so corrupt and violent that God simply cannot take it any more. God looks at all of the wickedness and violence, sees the way that human beings have corrupted the entire planet, and becomes sad and regretful for having ever made humanity.
So God brings a flood, appointing Noah and his family to be the sole human survivors, protectors of each animal species, and progenitors of human life in the new world that will follow.
What will change this time? Presumably, things will be different in Creation 2.0. Indeed, God plans ahead for the change, giving rules to humanity this time so that they do not repeat the same mistakes.
But has anything really changed?
God knows that Noah’s offspring will be no better than their ante-diluvian ancestors.
After Noah exits the ark, he offers a sacrifice. That’s a good start. God appreciates the gesture, and declares “Never again will I doom the earth because of man…” (Genesis 8:21)
Fantastic! Is it because God is so pleased with Noah’s piety? Not exactly.
The Lord continues, “…since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth.” Nature or nurture? It’s nature. Humans have the same capacity for evil that they have always had. It is part of our D.N.A. Nevertheless, God makes a commitment to let the experiment continue, acknowledging that it an occasional intervention may be warranted.
Within a few generations, humanity seems to be heading down a familiar path. The Torah introduces us to major characters in the generations following the flood and occasionally shares brief notes or stories about them. We meet Nimrod, son of Cush, son of Ham, son of Noah. Nimrod is described as “the first man of might on earth. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord.” (Genesis 10:8-9) He built a kingdom in Shinar, otherwise known as Babylonia, otherwise known as Mesopotamia, otherwise known as present-day Iraq and Syria.
Tradition identifies Nimrod as the first King. How does he ascend to that position? The medieval commentator Abravanel points to Nimrod’s hunting prowess. People see how powerful he is to be able to defeat lions and bears, and stand in awe of him. When Nimrod turns his attention towards his fellow human beings, he easily vanquishes and conquers them, thus building the world’s first empire. With empire comes progress. The development of political life, technological innovation, human wisdom – all are made possible by civilization.
But Nimrod and his generation go astray, according to commentators, pursuing progress for its own sake, rather than as a means to a greater good. Power begets power, as the saying goes. Where the violence and oppression before the flood had been chaotic and random, now it is state-sponsored.
The Torah continues with the well-known story of the Tower of Babel. At this time, we are told, everyone on earth speaks the same language and lives in the same place. Humanity has gained the ability to control the environment in which it lives. From their place in the lowlands, people figure out how to take mud, shape it, apply fire, and make bricks. They now have the ability to make life better, safer, and more meaningful. They can build structures to protect them from the elements, buildings to store food, schools to learn, libraries to store knowledge, and temples in which to worship. So what do they do with this technological innovation, this amazing new ability?
“Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky…” they say to one another. For what purpose? Efficient apartment dwelling? A university? A hospital? A town hall? A sanctuary? No. Those are not what the people are interested in. They are not going to use their technological abilities to serve a greater good. Their aims are more self-centered.
V’na’aseh lanu shem. “Let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky to make a name for ourselves.” (Genesis 11:4)
They want to build it as a timeless monument to human progress.
A midrash teaches that the tower gets to be so high that it takes a really long time and a lot of effort to travel from the bottom to the top. Whenever a brick would fall, the workers would collapse to the ground and weep, “Woe is us. When will another brick be hauled up to take its place?” But when a person falls, nobody pays any attention. (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 24)
Why do they build the tower? Because they can. This is the end result of what Nimrod introduces to the world. It is a description of a totalitarian society in which the state is everything and the individual is nothing. There is no God in such a situation.
God looks down at this rising edifice to human power and sees that something must change. This is not what God had intended. So God babbles their tongues, and they can no longer understand one another. The building project grinds to a halt. Then God scatters the people over the face of the earth.
On one level, The Tower of Babel is an origin story that explains why the earth contains so many people with different languages, cultures, and beliefs. But it is also a story with lessons about human nature, politics, and equality.
Judaism is highly skeptical of political leaders. The idea that power corrupts seems to be ingrained in the Torah. Deuteronomy’s laws of Kings are all about limiting the powers and rights of the monarch. Kings and societies are judged not by how much land they acquire or taxes they collect, but by how the most marginal people in society are treated. Why are political leaders so suspect? Because politics inevitably leads to inequality. A subject, by definition, is not equal to the king.
In our democracy, ideally, the power of government is derived from the people, and there are checks and balances to prevent any one person or group from gaining too much power. In reality, we know that American society has gross inequalities, whether in money, political power, educational opportunities, health care access, and so on.
The Tower of Babel suggests that the solution to the problem of too much power is diversity. People and nations need to be free to pursue meaningful lives in different ways. Our tradition recognizes this as ideal.
The Messianic future envisioned by Judaism does not imagine that all nations will one day unite and become a single people. That has never been our vision. In the Messianic Age, it is simply that all peoples on earth will recognize God as the Creator and ruler. It is in this morning’s parashah that the Rabbis identify the seven Noachide commandments; seven laws given to all humanity that form the backbone of ethics. As long as a people abides by those essential norms, it should be free and encouraged to go its own way, while respecting other peoples’ rights to do the same.
A thirteenth century Spanish commentator, Menachem Meiri, in considering the Christians and Muslims of his day, declares that as long as they are gedurim b’darchei hadat, bound by the laws of morality and justice, they are to be considered as equal to Jews in all respects. That is a fairly remarkable position for that that time and place.
Elsewhere in our texts, we are taught that the righteous of all the nations earn a share in the world to come. So you see, Judaism advocates a healthy respect for diversity. There are other ways to worship God and other ways to organize societies other than the Jewish way, and that is a good thing. This is a lesson from the Tower of Babel.
It is also good from a practical perspective. A society’s embrace of diversity and pluralism serves as a check against oppression and violence. It is why a country’s freedom is typically measured by factors like religious freedom, the fairness of elections, the existence of civil liberties, freedom of the press, and the absence of corruption.
In every age, there are Nimrod’s who seek to suppress freedom and deny equality. Israel’s Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, has been in Washington D.C. this week. I heard an interview in which he was asked about ISIS. He predicted that the Middle East is never going to return to what it was a few years ago. The borders of countries like Iraq, Syria, and Iran, were drawn up arbitrarily after World War One. The countries themselves were held together for almost a century by totalitarian dictators from minority tribes who forcefully imposed themselves on their populations, much like Nimrod thousands of years ago, who exercised power for the sake of power. But these artificial nations were comprised of diverse peoples with different cultures, religions, and languages. In order to maintain power, that diversity had to be suppressed. The violence and terror we are witnessing today is driven by religiously-fueled zealots who also reject the value of diversity, deny equality, and subjugate all who come under their authority.
We have been watching in horror as ISIS and other militant Islamic groups fight to create a caliphate, an empire, that would oppress anyone who does not conform to their narrow belief system. It is a scary, totalitarian ideology. How ironic that the story of the Tower of Babel took place smack dab in the middle of the war zone!
If we learn one thing from the Tower of Babel, let it be that God wants diversity. The Mishnah cited above regarding humanity’s shared common ancestor (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) also teaches that when a person kills another, it is as if s/he has destroyed the entire world. It goes on to explain that when people mint coins from a coin press, every single coin comes out exactly the same. Not so with God, for God stamped each person with the seal of Adam, and yet no two people are alike. Thus each person is obligated to say, “For my sake was the world created.”
People of faith would do well to remember this.