Posted on October 29, 2011 by Derek Kwait
Once upon a time, a Middle-Eastern nation wanted to build a tower with its top in the heavens to make a name for itself. This tower would be a powerful monument to their civilization’s unsurpassed greatness and modernity. They even refused to announce what the final height of the building would be until it was finished lest another nation build something greater before their tower was finished.
The tower I am referring to, of course, is the 2,723 ft. tall Burj Khalifa in Dubai, completed in 2010 and currently the largest structure in the world. But the similarities between this tower and the one in Babel we read about in this week’s parsha run deeper than this. There is a Midrash that, during construction of Babel’s tower, when a worker fell to his death, no one noticed, but when a brick fell everybody cried. Similarly, Dubai’s tower was built by frequently abused and mistreated poor south Asian migrant workers earning from $7 to $4.50 a day. This is symptomatic of a wider problem—that of the “guest workers,” who make up roughly 80% of the United Arab Emirates’ population, yet enjoy none of the rights and privileges of UAE citizens, have no opportunity of becoming citizens, and receive little political representation or access to social aid. The problem is similar for guest workers in several “developed” nations.
Who says Biblical stories aren’t true?
As the Babylonians are building, the Torah says, “The Lord came down to look at the city and tower that man had built.” They had the largest tower in the world, with its top in the heavens, yet still God had to “look down” to see what they had built. In contrast to this, Abraham stands “before God” (Gen. 18:22) when pleading for Sodom and Gomorra, and is commanded as part of the Covenant to “walk before” God “and be perfect” (17:1). Similarly, meek Moses, the humblest man on Earth (Num. 12:3) spoke to God “face-to-face as one speaks to his friend” (Ex. 33:11). I think the lesson for us here is obvious: If we want to truly build monuments that will last, if we truly wish to live up to our potential for greatness as humans and bring God down to earth, we can only do so by building towering relationships, by being kind to others and helping the immigrant and the stranger. This means God doesn’t care what we build, He cares how we treat the builders. Beavers can build dams, spiders webs, ants colonies comparatively greater than what we can do all on their own, without any help nor tools nor pollution. God is not impressed by our constructions, none could possibly compare or compete with His creation or His greatness. This means the size and aesthetic beauty of our Jewish homes and structures mean nothing if they do not serve as means to the end of teaching people to act humbly and respect the Image of God that all humanity is created in. As Jeremiah says in God’s name, “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice, and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight” (9:23-24).
So the night before I wrote this (Thursday night), I Skyped with my Grandfather. Just before I woke up, I had a dream about him (who,while very proudly Jewish is not particularly religiously observant) giving a powerful speech in shul about how everyone chooses their own story and uses it to give themselves meaning in life, and by living a certain way, you become a part of the story you choose. For example, if you buy into the capitalist worldview and act in the world as a capitalist, you are becoming a part of the capitalist narrative, or if you really love Star Wars and it inspires you to fight imperialism and train like a Jedi, you have made yourself a part of the Star Wars story, and have helped make the world a little more like the Star Wars universe (these examples I just thought of now, I don’t remember which examples Grandpa brought specifically in the dream, but I know that this was his point). He concluded the speech by saying that to observe the Sabbath is to identify with and make yourself a part of the Jewish story and help remake the world more according to Jewish ideals. I thought this was beautiful and felt so proud of Grandpa and was even a little envious that I could never think of something so inspiring when I woke up.
Once up, I got to thinking about this in the context of Parashat Noach and the ideas that had been swirling around in my mind in preparation for writing the above. At first it seemed to have no relevance, but I now think it’s perfect. From the point of view of someone (not me) who wants to believe the Bible is literally true, Parsha Noach is perhaps the most difficult parsha not only because its stories are so far-fetched but because they don’t even concern Jews. But Grandpa and I have a different view. It’s been powerfully pointed out in many places (such as in the Soncino/Hertz Chumash in Etz Hayyim) that what most distinguishes the Noah story from other ancient flood myths is its unique concern for morality and righteousness. Similarly, as seen above, the Tower of Babel teaches a remarkably inspiring (or at least I think so) lesson about the dangers of materialism and the value of human life. So, according to my Grandpa’s teaching, when we bring the Jewish obsession with morality, justice, and compassion in to our lives—into our own personal narratives—we make these stories true now by making the world more moral, just, and compassionate. And by making them true, we are in turn making ourselves a part of the Jewish story and making it more true in the story of the world.