Here is that episode. Humanity bands together to build a tower that reaches to heaven. They say, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.” (Genesis 11:4) God is not pleased with their efforts and says, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” (11:6-7)
Thus the first building project does not go so well. The people want to build the tallest building possible. God apparently sees this as an offense or perhaps even a threat. Only God dwells in the heavens. And so the tower remains unfinished. We remain human. We are left babbling. We are cursed to speak different languages.
According to the rabbis the people’s great sin was not so much their goal of building the tallest tower but instead their lack of concern for the workers. In Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer it is related that if a worker fell from the tower to his death, the people were indifferent, but when just even one brick fell, they lamented the construction delays. It is for this reason, the legend suggests that God punished them, scattering them throughout the world and confounding their speech, producing the myriad of human languages that we still confront.
Biblical scholars suggest that this story was authored to explain the existence of languages. How could the descendants of one family, namely Adam and Eve, give rise to these different languages? The answer is of course that this was something that we brought upon ourselves. Our desire to reach the heavens was our undoing. There was once an idyllic state when all spoke the same language, when language did not create additional borders, when communication was easy and not confused by misunderstandings.
We used this single language to our own ends. Rather than uniting for good, we combined to become too much like God. Thus we were dispersed. Interestingly while the flood has parallels in ancient Near Eastern literature this episode has no parallel. Only the biblical authors viewed the existence of different languages as a dilemma that required further explanation.
I refuse to believe that the richness of languages is a calamity. So much is discovered by languages and their differences. Every language has its own nuances and offers its own secrets to the human condition.
One of my favorite poets, Edmond Jabes, an Egyptian Jew who immigrated to
writes of the power of language and the book.
He writes in French. I read him in English. He writes in “And You Shall be in the Book”:
When, as a child, I wrote my name for the first time, I knew I was beginning a book.—Reb Stein
(“What is light?” one of his disciples asked Reb Abbani.
“In the book,” replied Reb Abbani, “There are unsuspected large blank spaces. Words go there in couples, with one single exception: the name of the Lord. Light is in these lovers’ strength of desire.
“Consider the marvelous feat of the storyteller, to bring them from so far away to give our eyes a chance.”
And Reb Hati: “The pages of the book are doors. Words go through them, driven by their impatience to regroup, to reach the end of the work, to be again transparent.
“Ink fixes the memory of words to the paper.
“Light is their absence, which you read.”)
The pages of the book are indeed doors! Open them and discover new worlds!