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Rabbi Shekel on Parashat Noach

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563) (Wikimedia Commons photo)

What do you do when your entire world is destroyed? Rebuild. Human resiliency is front and centre in Parashat Noach.

After the flood, Noah’s descendants settle across the world, fulfilling God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. Some become hunters, others build cities or establish maritime nations. If nothing else, the parashah is a tribute to the human spirit, culminating in the construction of Migdal Bavel (the Tower of Babel).

One of the most imaginative interpretations of the structure’s purpose comes from Tiferet Yehonatan, written by Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz, an 18th-century scholar who saw the tower as a launching pad to get vehicles to the moon. This was not some sci-fi adventure. Rabbi Eybeschutz envisioned the vehicles as interstellar arks, a response to the dangers of the world, such as that experienced by the generation of the flood. In this light, the Tower of Babel becomes a self-preservation mission, which is solely a human initiative.

In contrast to this, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin writes in Ha’amek Davar that the Tower of Babel had a more sinister purpose. He contends that the builders wanted to maintain social uniformity, and knowing that humans are diverse, they were concerned that people who did not share their views would want to leave. In Haamek Davar, Rabbi Berlin even imagines that people who did not fall in line were put to death. The tower, then, was a totalitarian expression of self-preservation.

Migdal Bavel represents the best and worst aspects of human nature, creativity and ingenuity. It is a warning of the fine balance between resilience and hubris. Ingenuity shaped the bricks, creativity designed the structure, but morality was the mortar holding the edifice together and determining its use. We are in the shadow of the Tower of Babel with every advancement humanity makes.

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