"The Tower of Babel" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563
"The Tower of Babel" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563

Lessons from Tower of Babel: Focus less on yourself, more on the community

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Genesis 6:9-11:32

The Torah portion for this week, Noach, contains two of the most famous stories in the entire Torah: Noah and the flood, and the Tower of Babel. The generation of the flood proves to be out of harmony with God, but the generation of Babel is, in a different way, no better.

After the flood recedes and Noah and his family begin to repopulate the Earth, the parashah leads us through a long genealogy section. While it appears that the postdiluvian communities were largely nomadic, we suddenly learn that they have settled into urban life.

Initially, everyone speaks the same language. And for the first time, humans engage in large-scale construction. But first they need the raw materials: “Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard,” they say. (Genesis 11:3)

The people then say to one another: “Come, let us build us a city; and a tower with its top to the sky, to make a name for ourselves …” (Gen. 11:4)

Many modern scholars associate this tower with the Mesopotamian ziggurat, a massive, elevated, multi-tiered brick temple tower meant to symbolize a sacred mountain, a meeting point between heaven and earth.

The author(s) of this biblical story would have been familiar with such a tower, either from the surrounding culture or from historical memory. And they do not look on it favorably.

The goal of the people’s effort is very clearly to extol their own greatness, to make a “name” for themselves. It is not to honor God. The tower is — in a concrete, tangible way — a metaphor for human ambition, an expression of their reaching for the stars, of striving to be like their Creator.

Rather than gratitude to God for the world, the tower represents self-deification.

According to the text, the sins of Noah’s generation were corruption and lawlessness. Having learned little from the past, the generation of Babel sins, as well, but it has a different set of moral and spiritual transgressions: egotism, indifference and self-worship.

A passage from Chapter 24 of Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer offers insight into the rabbinic mindset on the problems of this narrative: “If a man fell and died [during construction of the tower], they paid no heed to him, but if a brick fell [the other workers] sat down and wept, and said: ‘Woe is us! When will another one come in its stead?’”

The central moral problem of the early generations of humanity is their absence of empathy and compassion for others. In the midrash above, the workers building the Tower of Babel care nothing about the well-being of other people. All they care about is their supply of bricks.

Self-aggrandizement, not the creation of a humane and just society, is their ultimate aim.

While the generation of the flood and the generation of Babel commit different transgressions, both defy the will of their Creator. Both act in ways that are radically counter to how God wants early humanity to construct their societies.

Noah’s generation is punished with a flood that consumes the Earth and almost all life on it. Babel’s generation is punished with a forced dispersal all over the world and confounded speech. Never again will all humanity live in a single place or speak the same language.

The narcissism and self-worship on display in the initial chapters of the book of Genesis lead to alienation from God. But they also lead to geographic and linguistic separation from one another, a dramatic existential detachment that continues into our own time.

Later in the Torah, idolatry will become a capital offense, punishable by death, and in this way the Babel generation gets off easy (or at least easier).

May our own generation finally learn from the past and, instead of focusing so zealously on ourselves, try to build just, humane and loving communities that are grounded on the moral and spiritual values God has given us.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa Valley and the founding rabbi of the New Shul in New York City. He is also the author or editor of several books including "Gonzo Judaism" and "God at the Edge."