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This D'var Torah is dedicated to Mr and Mrs Eli Fachler's 70th wedding anniversity, whose kindest hospitality I enjoyed for many years and who have been friends of my family for generations.
Within the narrative of the Tower of Babel:
G-d went down to look at the city and the tower which the sons of man had built (11:5)
The precise nature of the offence of the Tower of Babel is not clear in the text, and is debated by the commentators. Many interpret following the Midrashic view: that Mankind built the tower as a base to make war on G-d, to pre-empt what they believed was His sending an imminent natural disaster of global proportions. Sforno however carefully considers this urbanization initiative, and where the tower came in. Living in cities can be a very good thing. Indeed, today the standard of living in cities is generally much higher than out in the countryside. People, goods, and services are close to each other, creating many positive social, educational, economic, and welfare opportunities that depend on populations living close together and symbiotically. Even today, cities worldwide have logos. For example, Liverpool's traditional motto promotes a higher standard of living: "deus nobis otia fecit" (G-d has given us this leisure), to which Liverpool University responds with greater opportunities for education and research: "haec otia studia fecit" (this leisure promotes our studies) - though more recently became the "city of change and challenge" following the demise of the port. What logos express are not necessarily what the community is today, but what the city would like to be one day. In other words, its destiny. Sforno views the Tower of Babel as the city's logo representing its aspirations, and its ultimate destiny. That is why "G-d went down to see the city and the tower". G-d's "descent" represents His getting behind the reasons for the whole project. These motives were rooted in selfishness "making ourselves a name" (11:4) and not a word about improved social welfare and other positive opportunities. Indeed, Sforno compares their outlook with Sodom, of which the prophet Ezekiel writes: "this was the sin of… Sodom… she did not support the poor and the needy" (Ez. 16:49). Sforno implies that there is nothing wrong with a city, just as there is nothing wrong with food and drink. It's what you do with what you want and what you have that counts. He cites in support the case of the wayward and rebellious son (Deut. 21:18-21), whereby a youngster who is entirely out of the control of his parents is - as last resort - judicially executed. The Talmud, (quoted by Rashi ad loc) qualifies the "wayward and rebellious" elements with the son's consuming huge quantities of meat and wine, and will ultimately find himself robbing and killing others in order to support his addictions to gluttony and alcohol. Better that the son should die innocent rather than guilty. This, explains the Sforno, is what G-d saw when He descended. He saw that the entire project was based on sheer pride and selfishness. Like gluttony and alcohol, they bring out the worst in people, and the worst in a community. Thus G-d in His Descent judged the city and tower in the same way as the wayward and rebellious son - better that they should be destroyed and dispersed here and now that than develop into a negative human force at community level. Indeed, the story of the Tower of Babel contrasts with the Patriarchs and their descendants. They lived a Bedouin-type lifestyle until reluctantly forced into Egypt and even then sought to avoid urbanized life (47:4, Ex. 9:26). The Israelites did not experience urbanization until the conquest of the Promised Land. Indeed Moses linked the high standards of living to the danger of "forgetting G-d" (Deut. 8:11-12). The implied message of the Tower of Babel is that cities are communities that should be positive forces for their stakeholders. Perhaps the challenge today is being able to reach out effectively to the single and the lonely, who exist in great numbers in large urban centers worldwide. Indeed, recently a health study was published that showed that the daily human damage caused by lonely solitude is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes.
For those looking for more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/questions/ and on the material on the Haftara at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/haftara/ .
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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