Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations may derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Noach, the Ark and the Flood; Building an Altar; Murder and Suicide Prohibited; Making the first Covenant; The Rainbow; Noach plants a vineyard, and gets drunk; genealogy of the new family of Nations; The Tower and City of Babel; from Shem to Abram; Terach, Nachor, Abram and families.
On the Tower and the City of Babel
At that time the people of the world, who spoke only one language that contained a small vocabulary, migrated Eastward (as viewed from Palestine) and settled in the plain of Shinar –an area that was rich in asphalt (a mineral that they ingeniously figured out how to bake to form bricks).They wanted to immortalize their name for posterity by building a city (that would keep them unified and together) and a towering structure that would appear to reach the Heavens.( Philip Sandos speculates that it was the ancient calendar’s lunar orientation that precipitated the people’s desire to build a stairway to Heaven in order to wrest control of the Moon.) But “Man proposes and G-d disposes” and He confused their language and scattered them across the face of the earth. The city is left unfinished and is named Babel because it is similar to the Hebrew word for confusion, Balal.
Following is the complete text:
“ The whole earth was of one language(idea? ideology?) and of common purpose.2 And it came to pass, when they migrated from the east they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 They said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks and burn them in fire." And the brick served them as stone, and the bitumen served them as mortar. 4And they said, "Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed across the whole earth."
5 HASHEM descended to look at the city and tower which the sons of man built, 6 and HASHEM said, "Behold, they are one people with one language for all, and this they begin to do! And now, should it not be withheld from them all they proposed to do?1 Come, let us descend and there confuse their language, that they should not understand one another's language."
8 And HASHEM dispersed them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city.9 That is why it (The CITY) was called Babel, because it was there that HASHEM confused the language of the whole earth, and from there HASHEM scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”
The Torah uses the Hebrew word Raayhu in the phrase “… to one another”. Raayhu contains the two letter word resh/ayen which means friend , comrade but also, ironically, means wickedness -- perhaps suggesting that beneath the calm surface of unity and friendship was a raging desire to join together to do evil.
Umberto Cassuto (Italian scholar,1883-1951, professor of Bible at Hebrew University cited by Nechama Leibowitz) and other Biblical commentaries opine that the Torah stories are not meant to be scientific or historic or to teach us geology, biology or other sciences. Rather, they contain a moral and ethical purpose for us to learn and to absorb into our persona and into our behavior. The Babel story is a kind of satire on what the surrounding Babylonian culture considered to be a (vain)glorious thing of beauty. Divine wishes prevail.
Rashi (1040-1105) draws the contrast between this story and the Flood story. In the latter the people perished because of their violent anti-social behavior. However, in this story, people lived in harmony and brotherhood with each other (they were one people with one language), and their punishment was more lenient. As a Society, we need to improve our behavior Bayn Adam L’chaveyro (between people).
Benno Jacob’s (1862-1955) analysis is that the construction of the gigantic city (and Tower) was an (unsuccessful) attempt to frustrate the unavoidable wish of Hashem for Man to ”be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”.
Furthermore, this story demonstrates the unending risk of technical advances leading to overweening pride and arrogance; leading to self-aggrandizement (perhaps to transcend one’s inescapable mortality); and leading to the transformation of technology into an end rather than a means to advance humanity and its needs. The Midrash Pirkei Derabi Eliezer beautifully portrays this behavior : ”If (during the course of the construction) a man fell down and died, no attention was paid to him but if (even) one brick fell down they would sit and weep and say Woe betide us, when will another one be hauled up in its place?”. High regard for material achievements supplants human values. Lurking always are the twin dangers of worshiping technology as a religion and of the creator and/or user of this technology viewing himself as a God.
Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) views the people in the story as a boisterous and arrogant bunch who futilely opposed Hashem and sought a monument for their prestige and self-glorification. He, too, agrees that the dispersion of the human race had been G-d’s plan from the beginning.
Seforno (1475-1550, cited by Rav B.S. Jacobson) focuses on Hashem’s desire to “nip a problem in the bud”. The expression “Hashem descended” appears in the Torah when the occurring event is not as serious as the ultimate demoralization and problems it will lead to eventually. A Society characterized by totalitarian uniformity of thought and behavior (as described in the people’s desire for unity in the story) eliminates the possibility of arriving at the truth. Only in an open and diverse society where there is free exchange and discussion of ideas and views can the Truth be found. A free society beats Communism. For progress to be made, dispersion is the antidote for centralization.
Professor Robert Altman views the story as a polemic against urbanism and against Man’s arrogant confidence in technology. He also notes the elegant symmetry of the words: Man says “hava nilbena”—let us build –and Hashem says “hava nayrayd”, let us descend (to see what is happening). Man worries “lest we be scattered” ( pen nafutz) and Hashem does in fact scatter them (hefetzam).The Torah appears to purposely use a limited vocabulary with the words Safa (language) and Aretz (world) each repeated five times. There is also a clever variation in some words: chaymar and chomer (same Hebrew letters);shaym, shamayim and sham (each containing the shin/mem root).
Rabbi H.L. Berenholz
Last edit: 7 years 9 months ago by Heshy Berenholz.