After the Tower of Babel, dividing us was the way to unify

Genesis 6:9-11:32
Isaiah 54:1-55:5

It’s all there, right in the beginning of chapter 11 of Genesis. Once upon a time, society shared a common language and purpose. Sounds wonderful! As our numbers grew larger, people began moving east and settled in a new land. A reasonable development. They figured out how to make bricks, and engaged in an unprecedented building campaign — to build a tower up to the heavens.

HaShem did not approve of this plan, and noting that this is what mankind did when united, scattered the people across the earth by changing their understandings of language. Once people could not understand all others, they grouped together with those with whom they shared a common tongue. The united quest to build the Tower of Babel had ended in dispersion.

Every time I read the story, I wonder what exactly went wrong. What was their egregious error — that they wanted to build a tower to the sky? Since when is poor urban planning and design a crime? There is no prior mention in the Torah of zoning laws or a prohibition on this sort of construction. Why did HaShem block their project and scatter the people?

Our tradition teaches that the generation of the Tower of Babel has a great quality going for it: they were united. As a result of this merit, HaShem treated them differently than the generation of the flood. The people of that time, who stole and were violent to one another, were killed, and only Noah and his family were saved. But this later group possessed the powerful quality of unity, and was thus spared the destructive fate of those who came before.

Wait a second. In light of this teaching, how does the Divine response fit? Doesn’t scattering the people take away the one thing that they have going for them? If HaShem valued their ability to be together, why confuse their languages and scatter them? It’s their primary merit, and now it is being taken away from them!

The commentary of the Kli Yakar observes a key phrase in the wording. When the people of Babel explain the motive for their construction project, they say that with it “we will make for ourselves a name” (Gen. 11:4). Interesting — their purpose was to make themselves known, to distinguish themselves as better and above the other peoples of the land.

This is very revealing. While their outward actions reflected a unity of purpose, their internal state of mind was quite the opposite. A unity that is based on being better than and against others is a unity that will implode when each individual moves on to try and best their neighbor. The attitude behind their unity was destined to undermine that very togetherness, and could not be tolerated.

HaShem’s response brought to light that which was hidden under the surface. They appeared to be together, but were in truth only joined in their opposition to others. Once divided, the Kli Yakar explains, they were less likely to completely destroy themselves in an eventual and massive civil war. They could also stop denying, and recognize their drive to prove themselves “better” as a first step to getting down to the quest of many millennia: the search for true unity.

There is much to be learned from this ancient tale, perhaps including a distinction between unity and uniformity. The people who joined together to build the Tower of Babel were of a uniform language and task. But in as far as they sent the message that others would have to choose between emulating them or being considered lesser, they ignored the fact that people are at their core different from one another. Thus they could never hope to achieve unity, which brings together that which is different.

This pursuit of communal unity doesn’t mean, “when everyone else finally wakes up and realizes that I am right, we’ll all be together at last.” Rather, it requires efforts to understand differences, resolve those that can be resolved and try to bring together different approaches in mutual respect and ongoing recognition of their differences.

If anyone reading this column has a more effective way to do this than is currently being employed, please get started on it immediately. And while you’re at it, send me an email — perhaps we speak the same language.

Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Oakland’s Beth Jacob. He can be reached at [email protected] .