Rabbi Alexandra Wright – 12 October 2018
When the Torah has explained how all creation came to exist on the earth, and how people have to work for their living and women suffer pain in childbirth; and when in the epic of the flood, the catastrophic consequences of good and evil are made known, the Torah goes on to tell the story of how the nations were dispersed and why the people were ‘condemned’ to speak different languages and prevented from understanding each other.
All this is told in a terse and concise nine verses in Chapter 11 of Genesis at the end of parashat Noach. Va-yehi chol-ha-aretz safah echat – “All the earth had the same language and the same words,” is how this story, known as the Tower of Babel, begins. It is a story, not only about the diversity of the nations and language, but also about the origins of Babylon, the empire that will eventually oppress Israel.
The earth’s population wanders from the east and comes to a valley in the land of Shinar and settles there. But like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, like those who corrupted the earth in the generation of Noah, the inhabitants of Shinar want to go a step too far. ‘Come, let us build a city with a tower that reaches the sky, so that we can make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the earth’ (11:4).
In a rare ‘appearance’, God ‘comes down’ to look at the city and the tower built by the people and seeing that no scheme of theirs will be beyond their reach, he confuses their speech so that no one understands what the other is saying and then scatters them over all the earth. That is why, says the text, the name of the place was called Babel (Babylon) because from there, God ‘balal’ – confused the speech of all the earth, God created a babel of sound among humanity.
In contemporary literature, William Golding’s 1964 novel, The Spire is a kind of contemporary midrash on the story of the Tower of Babel. The Dean of a cathedral directs the construction of a tall spire – said to be based on the spire of Salisbury Cathedral – against the advice of the master builder and many others. At great cost – physical, financial and spiritual – those who drive forward the ill-fated project, become corrupted and damaged, ambition and blind folly bringing about their downfall.
So too, in rabbinic midrashic sources on the Tower of Babel, the tower reaches to such height, that it takes a year to climb to the top. Said the rabbis: a brick was more precious in the sight of the builders than a human being. If a man fell down and met his death, none took notice of it, but if a brick dropped, they wept because it would take a year to replace it.
Yet, despite this over-reaching ambition, the punishment is ‘less’ than that of the Flood. Divine response mirrors human action very precisely. While the people want to make a name for themselves and prevent dispersion over all the earth, the very opposite happens. The name that is made for these people is ignominious, they are dispersed throughout the earth and their speech is confused.
The story is designed to reflect adversely on Babylon but this is a story about language and words – the language and words that lie at the heart of the Jewish chain of tradition, the words that flow through generations of parents and children, scholars, teachers and students, ordinary men and women. ‘Ours is not a bloodline but a textline,’ write Amos Oz and his daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger, in their book Jews and Words; we belong to a ‘lineage of literacy’. We see the whole world and our own lives as a text to be passed on – laws, traditions, stories, blessings, prayers – from one generation to another.
Does the story of the Tower of Babel, therefore, undercut this dependence for our survival on language? Not at all! It is only when we use language to ‘make a name for ourselves’, to distort, to self-aggrandise, to bend dishonestly to our will, that words fall opaque like stones on hard ground, without their resonance of truth and integrity.
But when our words fall as the rain, our speech ‘distils as the dew, like showers on young growth, like droplets on the grass’ (Deuteronomy 32:2), gently, irrevocably, soundlessly, with the transparency of crystalline quartz, then our words bear the truth and resonance of their telling.
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