by Jacob Solomon
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G-d descended to look at the city and the tower that Mankind had built. G-d said, "Behold they are one people with one language for all, and they began to do this? ... Come, let us descend and mix up their languages, so that no one should understand another’s language.'...Therefore that place is called Bavel, for there He mixed up the languages of the whole Earth, and from there He scattered them over the surface of the Earth (11:6-7,9).
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 38b) notes that G-d's response to the Tower of Babel is written in the plural form. It brings the tradition that G-d consulted with His celestial court before punishing Mankind a second time – the first time having been the Flood. The Midrash (Tanchuma 18) comments that we learn for this passage that judges should not convict the accused until they fully investigate the case. R. Nosson Sherman (Stone Edition, ArtScroll series) expands this point: G-d does not need the advice of angels, but He consulted with them to show that others should be involved and consulted before important decisions are made.
The use of the plural and the above interpretations are unique to this passage. For G-d did not consult with angels when He brought the flood on Mankind, nor did he do so in later events, for example when He decided to overthrow Sodom, or when He drowned the Egyptians in the Red Sea. All those passages are written in the singular – He alone passed the death sentence. What was special in the case of the Tower of Babel? And what may be learnt from the use of the plural form?
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 38:6) brings the following well know observation:
Who were worse – the Generation of the Flood or the Generation of the Dispersion? The former did not plan a rebellion against G-d, and the latter did! And yet the former were drowned, and the latter were not wiped out! But the Generation of the Flood were robbers (see Rashi on 6:11) who struggled against each other. The Generation of the Dispersion dwelt amicably together and co-operated together (implied in Rashi on 11:1). This teaches us the evils of strife and the greatness of harmony.
The importance of the above seems all the more significant when considering an earlier passage in this Parasha – the story of the Rainbow. My rainbow – I have put it in the cloud. It shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and the Earth... I will remember My covenant… and the water shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh (9:13,15).
Why did the Almighty convey His promise to Mankind in the form of the Rainbow? R. Chaim Wilschanski (For the Shabbat Table, p. 30) emphasizes that the rainbow consists of many colors that blend into one another, symbolizing the variations, differences, and talents within the human race. This was a sharp message for the social development of Mankind. Man was to abandon the law of the jungle, which preceded the Flood, and build a society based on trust and co-operation. These were the essentials for Man to build a civilization. The Rainbow stresses that they should co-operate in one 'arc of peace'. Unity, but not uniformity! However unity was not to be abandoned completely. This was symbolized by another characteristic of the rainbow: if one quickly rotates its colors, they all appear white – a symbol of purity.
This helps us to answer the original question – what was special about the Tower of Babel, to the degree that G-d consulted with angels before passing sentence?
Unlike the Flood, the Destruction of Sodom, and the drowning of the Egyptians, the Tower of Babel was a product of spiritual progress in Mankind. On one hand, the lessons of the Generation of the Flood had been learnt – people had learnt to work together instead of working against each other. This was immense progress in the area of bein adam le-chavero – between Man and Man. On the other hand, this positive element was not followed through correctly. Mankind did not use his corporate and technological skills to work within the framework of the Creation – bein adam le-makom – between Man and G-d - by cooperating with and showing gratitude to the Almighty (implied in Rashi on 11:5). Instead, progress in mutual trust, cooperation, and resulting technological advance caused them to reject G-d as Master of the Universe.
Hence the Tower of Babel was different. Humanity did attempt to rebel against G-d (see Rashi to 11:1). But this was the product of a chain of causation. In that chain were good things: a legal system (9:6), G-d's covenant, the message of the Rainbow, and Man's abandon of theft and robbery. All these were positive attributes. Unlike the other three examples given, there was room for the angels to question G-d's judgment. Was not the sin of the Tower of Babel just an unfortunate bi-product of what overall was a positive civilizing process in mankind? That could be the reason why G-d consulted with the angels...
But the truth was otherwise. "The fear of G-d is the wisdom of all knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline" (Proverbs 1:7). The lesson that the Torah teaches is that ultimately, the good that came out of mutual cooperation was more than nullified by the worship of Man and his own technology – leading to the final conclusion that Mankind would ultimately control the world – independent of the Creator. That was their form of idolatry. Something had gone wrong with the 'rainbow of cooperation'. The final 'rotated product' did not come out white, but black! Once Mankind 'put G-d out of the way' it would be open to follow any doctrine and ideology it chose. Given Man's acquisitive instincts, sooner or later this would have lead to the 'survival of the fittest' and the ultimate destruction of civilization.
Written by Jacob Solomon, (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org) le-ilui nishmat his Mother, Harabanit Devorah Solomon ztl. who ascended to the Yeshiva Shel Maalah on Shabbat Ki Tavo two years ago.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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