The concluding chapter of this week’s portion describes the first real estate development project, the construction of the Tower of Babel.
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 this first building project does not fare 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.
The rabbis ask: what was the people’s great sin? It was not so much their goal of building the tallest tower but instead their lack of concern for their workers. A midrash relates: 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 discover.
Biblical scholars suggest that this story was authored to explain the existence of the many human languages. How could the descendants of one family, namely Adam and Eve, give rise to these different languages? The Bible’s answer is that this was something that we brought upon ourselves. God’s initial desire was unity. Our divisions are our doing. Our attempt to reach the heavens, our efforts to become like God, are our downfall. There was once an idyllic state when all spoke the same language, when language did not create additional borders, when all shared one piece of land, and when communication was easy and never confused by language barriers.
And yet there are blessings in our present, less than idyllic situation. I refuse to believe that the richness of languages is a calamity. So much is discovered in the multiplicity of languages. Every language has its own nuances and offers its own secrets to the human condition. Look what we can learn from Hebrew! Just as Eskimos have numerous words for snow, Hebrew offers a myriad of names for God.
Are the languages that confound our understanding of one another a curse? Are they in fact the punishment that the Book of Genesis suggests? Or do they provide opportunities to learn and grow? Are the many human languages doorways to uncover some nuance and gain some insight into human existence?
What might we uncover about our God as we enter another year of paging through the Torah and hearing the music of its Hebrew?
The language beckons.