Genesis 6:9 – 11:32
The Tower of Babel
This week’s Torah portion speaks of two main events: The flood, and, in its wake, the dispersion of mankind following the Tower of Babel episode. It appears that both events are the Divine response to what humans building cities for themselves might represent.
At the end of the previous portion, the descendants of Cain build for themselves a city (Gen. 4:17-24). In the process, they grow not only disconnected from God, but also increasingly arrogant. They create for themselves a high-culture society, and achieve unrivaled military might by making iron weapons; to the point where they boast to have become more powerful than God. Consequently, God vows to destroy mankind, and follows through with the flood.
But only a few generations after the waters have receded, humans are building yet another city. Just like Cain’s descendants, the post-flood humans build a military fortress; this time with a high tower. Though many commentators have pointed to the fact that the tower was reaching to heaven because mankind wanted to assert autonomy and challenge God, Torah never speaks of heaven as being the place of God’s dwelling, rather only as God’s creation. The insistence on building “a tower that reaches the sky” [Gen. 11:4], stresses the highly fortified nature and impregnability of the city. Humanity, finding strength, security and comfort living together in one small place, hunkered down, closed itself off from the world, and disconnected itself from the earth and from God. But despite their best efforts, God intervenes and scatters people all over the earth anyway, and in so doing multiplies their languages.
Why were the cities in Torah seen as the center of evil and sin? Because they symbolized mankind’s resistance to fulfilling the purpose for which we were created. We read: “God then said to [Adam], ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and tame it’” [Gen. 1:28]. This injunction is repeated in this week’s portion: “God then blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply; and fill the earth’” [Gen 9:1]. We are to fill the earth, to be scattered everywhere; not to be concentrated in one place, closed off from the natural world. In fact, we are to immerse ourselves in nature: “So the Eternal One sent [Adam and Eve] away from the Garden of Eden, to work the soil from which they have been taken” [Gen. 3:23]. The word for “work” in this verse is “la-avod” which, in Hebrew, refers to sacred work, to prayer and worship, to spiritual work as much as physical work. Humanity’s purpose is to be the sacred workers, the caretakers, the stewards of this hallowed earth. Through the sacred work of our hands the earth fulfills its purpose of bringing forth its bounty. Despite what many interpreters have claimed, the Torah does not assert that the earth is here to serve us and our needs; it rather posits that we are of the earth, bound to live in a harmonious and sacred relationship with it.
Our practice is to not only see the holiness of who we are in ourselves and each other, but also to know the holiness of where we are; to glimpse the face of the Divine in all we see, in all we taste, and work toward restoring balance to our ecosystem so there never shall be a flood again.