Back to This Week's Parsha| Previous Issues
Tower of Bavel: Control Your Own Destiny and Be Rid of G-dAdapted from from Shiurei Da'as, V. I, Sec. 2, Ma'amar 8 by Rav Yosef Yehuda Leib Bloch, zt"l, the Rosh Yeshiva of Telz in prewar Europe.
Now the entire earth was of one language and of a single mind.… And they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth." And the Lord descended to see the city and the tower that the sons of man had built. And the Lord said, "Lo! [they are] one people, and they all have one language, and this is what they have commenced to do. Now, it will not be withheld from them, all that they have planned to do. Come, let us descend and confuse their language, so that one will not understand the language of his companion." And the Lord scattered them from there upon the face of the entire earth, and they ceased building the city. Therefore, He named it Babel, for there the Lord confused the language of the entire earth, and from there the Lord scattered them upon the face of the entire earth. (Bereishis 11:1-9)
This is the famous Torah story of Migdal Bavel [Tower of Babel]. It is a very puzzling story, scant on details and very unclear exactly what was their wrongdoing. That there was something very dangerous about their plan is obvious from Hashem's serious concern of the outcome, "Now, it will not be withheld from them, all that they have planned to do." If they succeed, nothing will stop them in their schemes. Consequently, their languages were confused and their plan ruined. But what exactly was so dangerous about the building of this city and the construction of the tower that caused Hashem to take such extreme measures against all of mankind?
We know that Chumash stories are quite often very sparse in their details, leaving the Torah Shel Ba'al Peh [the Oral Tradition] to fill in the details. And even beyond the Midrashic literature are the Kabbalistic works which delve into the very core of each issue. Without the composite of all these explanations, we cannot come to full understanding of the written Torah. The written Torah is like the physical body, the deeper commentaries are like the soul, and Kabbalistic explanations are like the soul of the soul. All together, they comprise one entity complementing each other to form a total picture. Rashi quotes Midrash Rabba which sheds a bit of light on our quandary:
ãÀáÈøÄéí àÂçÈãÄéí: They came with one scheme and said, "He [Hashem] had no right to take control Himself the upper realms. Let us ascend to the sky and wage war with Him." Another explanation: [they spoke] against the Sole One of the world. Another explanation: They said, "Once every 1,656 years, the sky totters, as it did in the time of the Flood. Come and let us make supports for it." - [Bereishis Rabba 28:6]
Besides the fact that there is no hint of these schemes in the narrative of the Chumash, these explanations are incomprehensible if taken literally. Were all these people, the entire world population, so insane as to think that they could go up to Heaven and wage war with the Ribono Shel Olam? The generations was extremely close to the creation of the world and were extraordinarily intelligent. How could they even dream of going upstairs and waging a battle, or building supports for the Heaven so that it shouldn't rain again? That is absolutely absurd. Secondly, even if you want to say they were so foolish, what was the need for Hakadosh Baruch Hu to take such drastic steps to alter nature and confuse their languages? Let them build their stupid tower and see where it gets them. Thirdly, what was Hashem so afraid of? The possuk says that if they succeed, nothing would stand in their way. It seems that their scheme was very real; it was very substantial and dangerous and required Hakadosh Baruch Hu's personal intervention. There is something behind this story that evades us.
The Ramban explains that there is a very deep Kabbalistic meaning behind this story. Upon examination, we see an intrinsic difference between the story of the Tower of Bavel and the Flood. In the narrative of the Flood, the Chumash uses the name "Elokim", denoting the middah of Divine Justice to punish them for their perversions. However, in this story of the Migdal Bavel the four letter name of Hashem is used. This indicates that the offence wasn't just a perversion; it was a crime directed against Hashem Himself. The Ramban comments that they wanted to "cut down the orchard" - a term denoting that they were waging a spiritual war to uproot the very foundations of the spiritual universe.
In the Holy books of Kabbalah we find even more esoteric descriptions. Their crime was that they wanted to separate the Sefirah of Malchus from the other 9 sefiros and use it for their own purposes. Anyone knowing a little Kabbalah recognizes that this doesn't make any sense whatsoever. All the 10 sefiros are emanations of Hashem's Divinity; they are one unit and cannot be separated from each other or from the source of everything: Hashem. How could they cut the sefira of Malchus from the rest of the sefiros?
We have now laid before you the pshat, drush, and sod (the simple meaning, the deeper meaning, and the mystical meaning) of this story. And still, not only have we no clue as to what went on, but each of the explanations seems to have no connection to the other.
After much contemplation, writes Rav Bloch, I thought that perhaps we can propose an explanation for this famous story.
A United Mankind
The entire world population at that time, so soon after the flood, was concentrated in one region. They all spoke one language (Hebrew - Rashi) and were united as one nation. But their numbers were increasing rapidly and they knew that they would soon be forced to begin dispersing to new regions of the world. This would cause them to separate into different distinct groups; they would no longer be united as one.
They realized that each of these small groups would be vulnerable to a multitude of natural calamities. Thus they decided that they had to find some way to safeguard their cohesiveness so as to ensure that everyone remained a united front working to secure control of both the natural and the spiritual forces. This would be their protection. Total and absolute harmony was crucial to achieve this goal. All of Humanity was compelled to remain unified as one group to protect themselves from anything that could afflict Mankind: illness, natural disaster, poverty, etc.
They were also acutely knowledgeable of the endless number of very powerful and remarkable forces hidden within nature. It could be that they were familiar with electricity, atomic energy, gravitational energy and more. Similarly they were aware of extremely powerful spiritual forces which could be exploited for their personal needs. We find later generations utilizing angels, sheidim, and other spiritual creatures. Certainly such an early generation, so close to Adam HaRishon himself, knew all this and more. If only they could unearth and harness these forces they could create a highly technologically advanced, affluent, and secure society. We see a similar phenomenon happening in contemporary society with the discovery of sophisticated technology that has totally revolutionized the face of modern civilization. A few years ago these technological advances were unimaginable and undreamed of. They were the stuff fairy tales and science fiction is made of. It wasn't even a dream. And everything that we have discovered in recent times is only a drop in the ocean compared to the secrets still waiting to be discovered.
If all of mankind throughout all the generations would have been totally unified and at peace with one another, they could have concentrated all their energies into developing a highly advanced civilization. Who knows what marvelous forces are hidden in the deep recesses of nature that when finally harnessed, would have untold benefit to mankind. And as advanced as our society is, our sages tell us that the early generations so close to Creation knew even more about Nature than we even dream of. The gemara (Brachos 10) tells us that Chizkiyahu HaMelech hid the Book of Cures because people didn't have to turn to Hashem when they fell ill. All they had to do was look up the cure in that marvelous book. That indicates that their knowledge of medicine was much superior to ours. The further back in time we go, the closer we get to the Creation, the more advanced was man's knowledge of the Universe and nature. They were able to control the physical and the spiritual forces for their own desires.
Therefore, aware of the natural calamities and disasters awaiting a divided Mankind, they schemed to unite as one group. "And they said, 'Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth."' They wanted this tower to be the central unifying hub of Civilization. A symbol of the Unity of Mankind to ensure that individuals should not go their own way and form separate groups. Rather, everyone should be bonded in one cause as one body in order to endeavor for the betterment of Mankind as a whole. Now, to us, that doesn't sound so scandalous. As a matter of fact it seems to be quite a noble ideal: the betterment of Mankind. But Hashem, in His infinite wisdom, understood what was really concealed in the dark recesses of their minds. Behind this noble idealism lurked the deep desire to rid themselves of G d. They wanted to be free of His domination to run their lives as they pleased. They wanted to shake off the shackles of Hashgacha Pratis (Divine Supervision) and take absolute control over their own destinies.
Hashem Exists but Doesn't Supervise the World
However, they made a tragic error in understanding the essence of Creation. They weren't like contemporary atheists. Today, when someone wants to rid themselves of G-d, they simply make believe He doesn't exist. The Generation of the Dispersion were too intellectually honest for that ploy. They recognized that Hashem exists, totally and absolutely. However, they thought that once He created the Universe, once all the forces of nature had been put in place, everything was now functioning on its own. If they pleased, they could take control and do as they pleased. They didn't need G-d any more. Everything would now be in their hands.
They concluded that they could live without Hashem. They didn't have to depend upon His Divine benevolence. They wanted to cut all ties with Divine Supervision and from now on be on their own. They were planning a spiritual rebellion to establish a worldwide heretical doctrine. However, this was all in their subconscious, hiding in the deep recesses of their hearts. They never uttered it explicitly. Therefore, the Chumash only told us the revealed story; what was observable to human eyes. All they said was, "Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens… lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth." It appeared that simple. All they wanted to do was to organize and build a city and a tower to serve as a focal point for all of humanity.
"And the Lord descended to see the city and the tower that the sons of man had built." Hashem Himself came down to see what they really were doing. And He peered deep into their hearts and understood their true intention to remove any subservience to Divine Supervision and to take their destiny in their own hands.
"And the Lord said, "Lo! [They are] one people, and they all have one language, and this is what they have commenced to do. Now, will it not be withheld from them, all that they have planned to do?" Hashem understood that left to their own scruples nothing could stand in their way and they would definitely be successful in their nefarious scheme. If all of Mankind united as one, they had the resources to take control of nature, both physical and spiritual, and free themselves of the yoke of Heaven. Therefore Hashem Himself came down to spoil their plan to separate them by mixing up their languages. "And the Lord scattered them from there upon the face of the entire earth, and they ceased building the city."
The Chumash makes an interesting point of describing that "Hashem" descended to see what they were doing. Throughout this parsha the holy four letter name is used to denote Hashem. Hashem Himself confused their language and stopped their plan.
Hashem: Unbounded and Constant Divine Control
The name "Hashem" indicates the highest level of Divine intervention, which is higher than the name "Elokim". "Elokim" indicates nature: the constant unchanging Divine order. This order however, is limited by the "Laws of Nature" which left holes through which they could gain control and activate their scheme. The name "Hashem" indicates the manifestation of the actual Divine Will of Hashem Himself who has complete and absolute control over the entire Creation, to change it at will. He can appear at any time and miraculously manifest changes in nature. By Hashem Himself actually coming down and revealing His presence He annulled their plan and terminated their scheme. They had no idea that the root of all Nature was continually in Hashem's hands. They thought that nature had been handed over to the powers and forces within nature that follow the set laws - the so-called "Laws of Nature". What they didn't know is that ultimately the actual management of Creation is ultimately directly in Hashem's hands and is not handed over to any of the lower (physical) or upper (spiritual) forces of nature. Hashem alone is in control. This is the meaning of the way we write the four letter Name which roughly translates as "He is": indicating that He is the very existence of the Universe. They were only aware of the name Elokim and so they thought they could gain control of all the powers and forces in Creation and use them as they desired with no need for any Divine intervention. Basically they wanted to rip themselves free of Hashem.
One Unified Pshat, Drush, Sod
Now we understand the Medrash that Rashi quotes. They wanted to go up to Heaven and wage war. They wanted to use their knowledge of the physical and the occult to take control of all the forces in Nature and change them from the original purpose of Creation and redirect them to fit their personal needs. As for Rashi's third explanation that at a set periodical time the Heavens open up and deliver a flood, this means that they wanted to gain control of the hidden forces latent in nature to prevent such major calamities to Mankind. Thus, we see that the Medrash and the simple pshat of the possukim are in perfect synchronization with each other.
If we delve a bit deeper we can understand that the commentary of the Ramban fits in very well with everything we have said. They wanted to free themselves from the yoke of Divine Supervision. They thought they could control the Laws of Creation at whim and use them for other than the original Divine plan. This was a heretical rebellion against Hashem Himself. They wanted to rip all the forces of nature from their original intent. This is the meaning of the Ramban in writing that they wanted to "cut down the trees".
This also enables us to grasp a bit of the meaning of the Kabbalistic commentaries that the Generation of the Tower of Bavel wanted to cut the Sefira of Malchus from the other 9 Sefiros. Hashem's influence on the world flows down to us through a series of 10 Sefiros, the last of which is Malchus. The Sefira of Malchus gathers all the emanations from all the Sefiros and sends them down to our lowly world. But this last Sefira of Malchus is more like a window letting the light into the room. The actual light doesn't come from the window, it comes from an outside source, the Sun. So too the "lights" which emanate from the Sefira of Malchus are emanations that originate from Hashem Himself. The generation of the Tower of Babel wanted to hijack this Sefira of Malchus and cut it off from its source and control it themselves, utilizing its tremendous supernatural powers for their grand scheme.
Thus we see that really Pshat, Drush, and Sod all combine in unison to create an entire picture.
The moral of the story is that the crime of the Generation of the Great Dispersion was their desire to seek extreme methods to better their situation. They wanted to divorce themselves from the state of affairs that the Divine Supervision, Hashgacha Pratis, had put them in. The Torah teaches us, úÌÈîÄéí úÌÄäÀéÆä òÄí ä' àÁìÉäÆéêÈ "Be wholehearted with the Lord, your G-d" (Devorim 18:13). Rashi explains, "Conduct yourself with Him with simplicity and rely upon Him, and do not inquire of the future; rather, accept whatever happens to you with [unadulterated] simplicity and then, you will be with Him and of His portion - [Sifrei]." Trying to control your future is not the Torah way. One may do whatever is normal in the way of hishtadlus. But to take extreme and extraordinary measures to control one's life is a denial of Hashem's direct Hashgacha Pratis over our destinies. A person has to come to the realization that ultimately he has no power over his future; everything lays in the hand of Hashem. One mustn't try to figure out his future. There are myriads of causes and effects which go into the makeup of our destiny. What looks good today, may turn out to be a disaster tomorrow. And what looks like a disaster today may turn into the greatest benefit imaginable in the future.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network