As we shall discuss in Part One of this letter, Avraham , our father, offered a radical protest against the cruel policy of the society in his region. This protest took place before Hashem told him to journey to the Land of Zion. In Part Two of this letter, we shall discuss the relevance of this protest to Avraham’s loving mission in the Land of Zion.
Within the Torah, we find the stories about Noah, who began a new human society after the great flood. After listing the descendants of Noah (who eventually developed into seventy nations), the Torah begins to tell us the story of the “Tower of Babel”:
"The whole earth was of one language and of common purpose. And it came to pass, when they migrated from the east they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks and bake them in the fire.’ And the brick served them as stone, and the bitumen served them as mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we become scattered throughout the earth.’ ” (Genesis 11:1-4)
In the above passage, we are introduced to a seemingly unified and peaceful society which desired to build a city and a very tall tower. The goal of its people was to make a name for themselves; moreover, they hoped that the new city with the very tall tower would serve as a unifying symbol which would prevent them from being “scattered throughout the earth.” In the following passage, we find the reaction of Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One, to the plan of this unified society, and what Hashem said to his court of celestial angels:
“Hashem descended to see the city and the tower that the children of Adam were building. And Hashem said, ‘Behold, they are one people with one language for all, and this is the first thing they undertake! And now, should it not be withheld from them all they propose to do? Come, let us descend and confuse their language, so that they should not understand one another’s language.’ And Hashem dispersed them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. This is why it was called Babel (confusion), 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. ” (Genesis 11:5-9)
The above verses indicate that the goal of this unified society was not in harmony with the Divine purpose, but these verses do not reveal a specific reason. This is unlike the story of the corrupt and evil society in the era of Noah which was destroyed by the flood. For example, regarding this earlier era, the written text of the Torah states that the earth had become “corrupt” and that it was “filled with robbery” (Genesis 6:11-13). The written text of the Torah does not openly reveal, however, the specific sin of those who were building the tower. As our sages teach: “The sin of the generation of the flood is explicitly stated in Scripture, whereas the sin of the generation of the dispersion is not explicitly stated in Scripture” (Genesis Rabbah 38:6). How, then, are we to understand the nature of their sin?
According to our tradition, there are various allusions in the text which reveal the sin of those who were building the tower. The following allusion is one example: The people who wanted to build the tower said, “Let us make a name for ourselves” (11:4). This statement indicates that their goal was self-glorification. They saw their community as an end in itself, rather than as a means to serve the compassionate and life-giving purpose of Hashem. Their social sin is discussed in the following excerpt from the commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch:
“If the community declares : ‘We want to demonstrate the powers that are inherent in the community; we want to join forces so that we may establish ourselves’, if the community does not call out in the Name of Hashem, but says, ‘Let us make a name for ourselves’; if the individual is called upon to be a servant of the community, but not serve Hashem; if the community presents itself as an end rather than as a means to an end – then humankind’s whole moral future is lost.” (Commentary to Genesis 11:4)
A prime example of the threat to humankind’s moral future by the builders of the tower, and the story of Abraham’s protest against this threat, is recorded in the following excerpt from an ancient midrashic work, “Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer” (Chapter 24):
Rabbi Pinchas said: There were no stones there wherewith to build the city and the tower. What did they do? They baked bricks...Those who took up the bricks went up on the eastern side, and those who descended went down on the western side. If a man fell and died, they paid no heed to him, but if a brick fell they sat down and wept, saying, “Woe is us! When will another one come in its stead?’ ”
And Abraham, son of Terach, passed by, and saw them building the city. He cursed them in the name of his God, and he said, “Master of All, subdue and divide their tongue, for I have seen violence and strife in the city.” (Abraham's statement is also found in Psalm 55:10)
Rabbi David Luria, a leading 19th century sage and kabbalist, wrote a commentary on Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer. In his commentary on Abraham’s statement, “I have seen violence and strife in the city,” he explains that Abraham was referring to their cruel and cold indifference to the lives that were lost in the building of the tower. Abraham therefore opposed their unified endeavor, and he cursed their endeavor by asking the Master of All to break their unity through causing them to speak different languages.
What was the reaction of the builders of the tower to Abraham’s protest against their cruelty? Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer describes their reaction through a parable about a stone:
They rejected his words, like a stone cast upon the ground. But is it not a fact that every choice and good stone is only used as a cornerstone of a building? It is therefore written, "The stone which the builders despised has become the cornerstone" (Psalm 118:22).
Based on the teachings of our Torah about Avraham, I would like to suggest the following interpretation of the above parable: Avraham was known for his emphasis on loving-kindness, and his acts of loving-kindness are described in the Written Torah – the text of the Torah, and in the Oral Torah – the explanations which reveal the various levels of meaning within the text of the Torah. (With the help of Hashem, we will discuss examples of his loving-kindness in Part Two of this letter.) Avraham’s emphasis on loving-kindness caused him to protest against the cruelty of the people that were building the tower, but they rejected his words, “like a stone cast upon the ground.” As the above parable from Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer reveals, this is not the end of the story, for the “stone” that they rejected – Avraham’s emphasis on loving-kindness – is actually the “cornerstone” of the world. In this spirit, it is written:
“The world is built through loving-kindness” (Psalm 89:3).
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen – (See below)
1. Our forefathers and foremothers were willing to take a separate path in a world which had lost its way. In this spirit, the Book of Genesis (14:13) refers to our forefather Avraham as the “Ivri” – the Hebrew. This word can also mean, “The one who is on the other side”; thus, the Midrash offers the following teaching in the name of Rabbi Yehudah regarding why Avraham was called the Ivri:
“The entire world was on one side, but he was on the other side.” (Genesis Rabbah 42:8)
2. The commentator, Radak, says that the story of the Tower of Babel took place when Avraham was forty-five years old. (The commentary of Radak on Genesis 11:1 – cited in Sha’arei Aharon)
3. The Talmud teaches in the name of Rabbi Noson that the generation of the dispersion built the tower for the purpose of idolatry, as they said, “Let us make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4).
4. The people who built the Tower of Babel had the benefit of unity, but their unity served an arrogant, self-worshiping purpose which led to their cruel and cold indifference to the deaths of some of their builders. Hashem therefore weakened their unity by causing them to speak different languages.
At the dawn of the messianic age, however, all the nations will achieve unity through serving the altruistic purpose which is associated with the Name of Hashem – the most sacred Divine Name that expresses the compassionate and life-giving Divine attributes. As Hashem proclaimed; “For then I will radically cause the nations to speak a pure language, so that they will all proclaim the Name of Hashem and serve Him with a united resolve.” (Zephaniah 3:19)
For an explanation of the attributes associated with the Name of Hashem, visit the following link to the introduction to the archive of our series on the soul of Zion: http://www.shemayisrael.com/publicat/hazon/tzedaka/mysearch.htm
A copy can also be sent to you via e-mail upon request.