This week’s Torah portion describes Noah and the flood. Everyone is familiar with the story. Noah is described as a righteous man in his generation. One of the questions is: was he righteous just in comparison to his own lawless generation or would history judge him as righteous for all time? I wonder why he did not argue with God. The rabbis suggest that he took his time building the ark so that others might ask questions about his project. His grand building project was meant to prod others. It was meant as prompt for their repentance. It of course failed in this endeavor. And we are left wondering about his righteousness. All the inhabitants of the world were destroyed save Noah and those he rescued on the ark. After the floodwaters recede a rainbow appears and a covenant is sealed. God looks at the rainbow and promises never again to destroy the world.
A rainbow is the gift following a storm. But almost immediately the people stray. They try to build a tower reaching to heaven, the tower of Babel. God does not like this and scatters the people throughout the world confounding their speech, producing all of our many human languages. Biblical scholars suggest that the tower comes to explain why there are so many languages if all descend from the same Adam and Eve. The rabbis suggest that the sin was not the construction of the tower but instead that the builders were more concerned whether or not the building project stayed on schedule rather than the rights of their workers. They cried when a brick fell but not when a worker fell to his death.
Others have suggested that the story is a polemic against what is called tower culture. There is the theory that there are tower cultures and mountain cultures. The biblical tradition favors mountain. Think about it. The entire Torah occurs in the wilderness. The Torah is given on Mount Sinai. The Torah concludes before we ever even reach the land of Israel and the building of settlements there. There are no towns and villages in the Torah. The ideal holiday of the Torah is Sukkot. This holiday celebrates our wandering in the wilderness. It rejoices in our wandering. It elevates a place that belongs to no one into our ideal state.
Along come the rabbis who then adapt this wandering mountain culture to their towers in which they live. In a sense you can take the wilderness with you. Our prayers keep our attention on the mountain and the wilderness wherever we might find ourselves. Our siddur speaks of nature even though we are separate from nature. We recite Maariv Aravim, God You bring on the evenings, You arrange the stars in the sky. In our cities we strain to see the stars. In the wilderness, the sky is awash with heavenly lights. After Sukkot we add the prayer Mashiv HaRuach, God You make the winds blow and the rains to fall. We add the prayer for rain when it is supposed to rain not here but in the land of Israel. Our prayers force our connection to our ideal land. It is not a city. It is not a tower.
The question is: what do we lose of our Judaism now that we are a tower culture? Do we lose something? True, there are gains. Our faith does become less dependent on where we are, where we sit. We can offer our prayers anywhere. It does not matter which tower we might find ourselves in. Then again do we lose our connection to nature and in particular to God’s creation? This is the great worry of the tower of Babel episode. Outside of the pristine state of wandering in the wilderness we lose hold on God’s creation.
There is nothing wrong of course with nice buildings or homes. I don’t think the ideal is living in a tent, although for one week a year the ideal is a sukkah. There is the danger however that our buildings make us focus too much on what we build. We lose sight of God’s nature. We lose touch with God’s creation. Towers are the products of human hands. And these are limited. When we make the works of our hands the sole focus of our lives we lose perspective. We then lose hold of what is most important. It is never the works of our hands. It is instead the divine tapestry. The message of the tower of Babel is the same as the story of Noah and the flood.
Only God can make a rainbow.