Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Parshat Noach

The Tower and Language

The nine pesukim that make up the story of the Tower of Bavel are very cryptic and brief.

"Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth" (Bereshit 11:4)

Is there anything really wrong with this? So they want to build a tall tower. Are skyscrapers forbidden?

God then confuses their languages and scatters them. Did people really start speaking whole new languages overnight? What's really going on in this story?

In last week's Sedra Short, we saw that God gave humanity a mission: to fill and conquer the earth, i.e. to develop the world and continue the Creation that God began.

The beginning of the story starts well. "They traveled from the east, and they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there" (ibid 1).

Noach's arc had rested in the Ararat mountain range. The people left that region and settled in a valley later known as Babylon and nowadays, Iraq.

This is good, humanity are again beginning to fill the earth. But now they have a problem. Previously they were in mountains, with plenty of natural shelter and large boulders with which to build. Now, however, they are in a valley. Valleys have no natural shelters. Furthermore, the soil in Babylon is clay. There are no boulders with which to build. So what do they do?

They invent bricks and building materials! "'Come, let us make bricks and fire them in a furnace'; so the bricks were to them for stones, and the clay was to them for mortar" (ibid 3). How did do they do this? They noticed that when the clay is heated it becomes hard. So they built furnaces and created artificial stones: bricks.

All this again is wonderful. Humanity has made an incredible technological leap and is now conquering the earth as well as filling it.

However, they soon make a dreadful mistake: "Let us build ourselves a city (good) and a tower (also good)… lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth (very bad)" (ibid 4).

The leaders of this society are worried that the people are growing too quickly – if they are not careful, they will lose control over them. So what do they do? They try to stunt their development. They do not want to fill the earth. The tower acts as humanity's physical and technological prison.

God cannot allow this to succeed as it breaks the basic principles of Creation, so God acts. He "scattered them upon the face of the entire earth" (ibid 9), ensuring that humanity continued to fill the earth.

He did this by confusing their language. What does this mean?

With a close reading of the Hebrew text of passuk 3, you will notice that the technological developments were accompanied by a language development.

The Hebrew word "livna" (build) grew to "leven" (brick). The word "saraf" (fire) grew to "serefa" (furnace) and the word "hemar" (clay) grew to "homer" (mortar). The new inventions led to new words being invented, in the same manner that the inventions of the internet, cellular phones, flash drives etc has also led to new words being invented.

Now, even though I am fluent in English, I find it very hard to follow and join in a conversation with a group of information technologists, in pretty much the same way that I did not understand a word my physics teachers spoke.

This is what happened to the people of Babel. With all the major technological breakthroughs, different groups found it hard to communicate with each other. As Rashi explains, it led to misunderstandings, frustration, violence and separation. The different groups could no longer live with each other and they were forced to part and establish new communities. Over time these new communities developed their own distinct languages.

(Note: Rashi does not say that the people started speaking new languages overnight – only that they no longer understood each other – even though they understood the individual words being spoken, they could not understand the concept, e.g. if someone asked for a brick, his friend could not understand his need for a brick – surely he needed mortar. When the mortar was brought, his friend was frustrated and became violent.)

The Torah describes this process in one passuk: "the Lord confused the language of the entire earth, and from there the Lord scattered them upon the face of the entire earth", but as the Ibn Ezra explains, this process took hundreds of years.

The message of this story is now clear. Humans cannot be eternally enslaved. Its development and creativity cannot be stopped. God instilled the need to fill and conquer the earth into humanity's DNA. The Tower of Bavel was built to stunt humanity's growth. It was doomed to fail.

Last year's Sedra Short for Parshat Noach, entitled: "The Raven and the Dove" can be found at:

Another Sedra Short for Parshat Noach, entitled: "The Tower of Bavel" can be found at:

A further Sedra Short for Parshat Noach, entitled: "Why an Ark?" can be found at:

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