These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

A Name for Us / A Name for You

Posted on October 6, 2013 by David Bogomolny

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I presented this dvar at our Shabbaton yesterday:

599223_10150950529593826_1333776195_n (3)Parshat Noach contains one of my favorite Biblical stories: that of the Tower of Babel. Together with you, I’d like to tease a few details out of the p’shat (the simple reading of the text), explore two midrashim (early rabbinic exegesis), and suggest a metaphor for the Tower.

Following are the Biblical verses that comprise the story:

Genesis 11

א וַיְהִי כָל-הָאָרֶץ, שָׂפָה אֶחָת, וּדְבָרִים, אֲחָדִים. 1 And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech.
ב וַיְהִי, בְּנָסְעָם מִקֶּדֶם; וַיִּמְצְאוּ בִקְעָה בְּאֶרֶץ שִׁנְעָר, וַיֵּשְׁבוּ שָׁם. 2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
ג וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל-רֵעֵהוּ, הָבָה נִלְבְּנָה לְבֵנִים, וְנִשְׂרְפָה, לִשְׂרֵפָה; וַתְּהִי לָהֶם הַלְּבֵנָה, לְאָבֶן, וְהַחֵמָר, הָיָה לָהֶם לַחֹמֶר. 3 And they said one to another: ‘Come, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.
ד וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָבָה נִבְנֶה-לָּנוּ עִיר, וּמִגְדָּל וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם, וְנַעֲשֶׂה-לָּנוּ, שֵׁם: פֶּן-נָפוּץ, עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ. 4 And they said: ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’
ה וַיֵּרֶד יְהוָה, לִרְאֹת אֶת-הָעִיר וְאֶת-הַמִּגְדָּל, אֲשֶׁר בָּנוּ, בְּנֵי הָאָדָם. 5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
ו וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, הֵן עַם אֶחָד וְשָׂפָה אַחַת לְכֻלָּם, וְזֶה, הַחִלָּם לַעֲשׂוֹת; וְעַתָּה לֹא-יִבָּצֵר מֵהֶם, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר יָזְמוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת. 6 And the LORD said: ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; and now nothing will be withholden from them, which they purpose to do.
ז הָבָה, נֵרְדָה, וְנָבְלָה שָׁם, שְׂפָתָם–אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ, אִישׁ שְׂפַת רֵעֵהוּ. 7 Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’
ח וַיָּפֶץ יְהוָה אֹתָם מִשָּׁם, עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ; וַיַּחְדְּלוּ, לִבְנֹת הָעִיר. 8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off to build the city.
ט עַל-כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמָהּ, בָּבֶל, כִּי-שָׁם בָּלַל יְהוָה, שְׂפַת כָּל-הָאָרֶץ; וּמִשָּׁם הֱפִיצָם יְהוָה, עַל-פְּנֵי כָּל-הָאָרֶץ. 9 Therefore was the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth; and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

The following are some points from the p’shat that I’d like us to keep in mind, as we explore this further:

  • In verse 2, we learn that the people dwelt in a plain, and in verse 3 they make brick, using the natural resources available to them. For the time, brick was a significant technological accomplishment.
  • In verse 4, we see that the people are concerned with establishing a name for their collective.
  • In verse 4, we also find that the people want to avoid being scattered from one another. They express this anxiety before Hashem scattered them in verse 8.
  • In verse 5, it is noted that Hashem came down to see the tower, which may be significant because the people had hoped for the top of the tower to reach heaven.

Let’s now turn to these midrashim:

Sefer Ha-Aggadah Part I, Chapter 2

קלז “הבה נלבנה וגו'” – אמר ר’ הונה: מלאכתם היתה מצלחת בידם: בא לבנות אחת בנה שתים, בא לטוח שתים ונטוחו ארבע. 137 “Come, let us make brick… and for them a small brick grew to the size of a foundation stone, and a handful of slime became a heap of mortar” (Gen. 11:3). So greatly did their work prosper, said R. Huna, that a man laying one brick found that two bricks had been laid; another plastering one row found that two rows had been plastered1.
קמ “פן-נפוץ על-פני כל הארץ… ויפץ יי אתם משם על-פני כל-הארץ” – אמר ר’ לוי: לאשה שאמרה לבעלה: ראיתי בחלום שאתה מרגשני. אמר לה: ולמה לך בחלום? הא לך בעלילות. 140 “And they said… ‘lest we be dispersed upon the face of the earth’… So the Lord dispersed them from thence upon the face of all the earth” (Gen. 11:4 and 11:9). R. Levi said: In its foreboding, the generation that was to be dispersed was like a woman who said to her husband, “In a dream I saw you divorcing me.” The husband replied, “Why only a dream? Here is your bill of divorce – a real one.”2
  • In 137, the midrash suggests that the people’s advancement surpassed even their own expectations. “A man laying one brick found that two bricks had been laid…”
  • Then, in 140, we see that Hashem’s decision to scatter the people was, indeed, a response to their initial concern that they might be scattered.

Now, after our first full week of the 2013-14 Pardes Year, I would like to suggest an analogy for the story of Babel. Just as living in the plain provided the people with the natural resources to create bricks with tremendous, even unexpected, success, so too may we find our learning in the Pardes beit midrash exceeding our greatest expectations.

It is only natural that we would want to “make us a name” to unite our Pardes community… Together, we aim to build the community of ‘Pardes 2013-14’. And naturally, we may experience anxiety about being scattered from one another – it will be challenging to maintain our Torah learning once we leave here, apart from the loving support of our faculty and havrutot (learning partners).

As we build our tower of ideas, words, and learning together this year in our beit midrash, I believe we should draw wisdom from the beautiful Tower of Babel story. In the short run, we build our community to inspire and support our Torah learning, but we would do well to step back occasionally and consider our medium- and long-term learning goals. What choices will we make once we part from one another? What can we do this year to prepare ourselves for our inevitable “scattering”?

I believe that “scatteredness” is Hashem’s vision for us – we are intended to learn from our differences, although it may be frightening for us to stand as individuals. Learning in community can be seductive… One could lose one’s self in it.

And so, I believe we can draw this lesson from the story of Babel – let us each contribute to the building of our ‘Pardes 2013-14’ community, and let us each grow in its embrace – and, ultimately, let us each prepare ourselves to live as Torah learning Jews for the rest of our lives. This is Hashem’s intention.

  1. Genesis Rabbah 38:6
  2. Out of fear that they might be dispersed all over the world, the generation that was to be dispersed set out to build a tower with its top in the sky. God said, “‘If this is how they have begun (hahilam) to act,’ etc. (Gen. 11:6), I will disperse them at once.” R. Levi, associating the unusual form hahilam with halom (“dream”), translates the word “the dream that they dreamed”; their being dispersed has become a reality – they have been dispersed, they did receive their divorce, so to speak, from God. Genesis Rabbah 23:7.