Parashat Noah

By Enid C. Lader

This past September marked the fifth year of remembering the tragic events of 9/11 and the thousands who lost their lives. As the television cameras panned the site of the World Trade Center and politicians pledged renewed effort to build towers even taller to replace the ones lost and pundits decried the amount of time that has passed without our rebuilding, I could not help but be reminded of the story of the Tower of Babel.

In this week’s Torah portion we read that:
‘Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words’ They said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard.” And they said, ‘Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves”’ (Gen. 11:1, 3, 4)

God becomes very angry with these people, destroys their tower, and scatters the people throughout the world and confounds their speech such that they could never again collaborate on such a project.

What was so terrible about their project? They seemed to be working together to a common goal; what could be so wrong with that? Rabbi Amy Schwartzman suggests that indeed there are cracks in the plan. First, we read in the text ‘Come, let us build for ourselves” What about for others? Where do visitors and newcomers who want to move there go? What about the homeless? Have the builders of Babel considered the needs of others in this building campaign?

Second, as Rabbi Schwartzman points out, the builders want to build in order ”to make a name for ourselves” The building of the tower will be a physical monument to their lives. If they spend their time in building a tower, what will they have done to build the character and good works behind their names?

The third crack in their plan is suggested in the midrash associated with the bricks of the project. The people became so focused on the tower that the making of the bricks and the bricks’ safety and preservation became more important than the human lives. ‘When a brick fell and broke, the people wept; but when a person fell and died, no one took notice.’ (Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer 24) Babel became a place where bricks took precedence over people; a place where technology was advancing, but the people’s spiritual and ethical lives were diminishing.

And so we return to Ground Zero and see that indeed there are choices to be made. In their efforts to plan for the ‘new construction’, have the developers considered the needs of others: surviving family members and the community at large? How does this building promote peace, reconciliation and understanding? What (or whose) name is it promoting’ and to what (or whose) end? What moral ground lies at the foundation of the building plans?

A friend of mine shares my concern. In an e-mail correspondence she wrote: ”[I]t bothers me that so much thought, effort and money goes into this ‘ and other memorials like it. Wouldn’t it be better to donate money to a peace organization’ or to build a stage on which to present socially responsible theatre’ or’ something’ anything that is fluid and alive and truly important in the way that the people who were lost were important”

I do not think that we are single voices here. I pray that we learn from the experience of Babel: That we work together to build the strongest understanding between people. That we work to enhance the structure of cooperation. That we work to gird connections between each other and the people who share our world. Then we will be on our way to a higher place ‘ and truly closer to God.