I first wrote the original version of this musing in 2001, just weeks after the events of September 11. I’ve interspersed some new thoughts and comments, and edited some comments, even back-tracked on a few, but the basic ideas of the original musing are still there. I would be surprised (and perhaps concerned) if my feelings about some of the questions I raise weren’t different now.
Everyone is tippy-toeing around it, but there it is, staring us in the face. We’re afraid to say anything lest we be mistaken for certain fundamentalist Christian ministers who have no shame in utilizing a horrid tragedy to bolster their own agendas. And so we look over it, we do not press it (with apologies to Sir W.S. Gilbert. As Tom Lehrer would say, the rest of you can look that up when you get home.) However, the comparison is unavoidable.
Tower of Babel. World Trade Center. Tower of Babel. World Trade Center.
Don’t go there, everyone says. And they don’t mean actually, physically going there. There’s no real comparison between midgal Bavel and the WTC, right?
Well, had ya goin’ there, didn’t I? I don’t think the story of the Tower of Babel and what happened on September 11, 2001 to the twin towers of the World Trade Center have any connection whatsoever that would in any way appeal to my sense of decency, dignity and my understanding of who and what is G”d, and what is our relationship to G”d. Those ministers preaching that the destruction of the towers was Divine retribution for abortion, homosexuality, pornography and anything else on their radar screens are about as far off base and they can be.
At midgal Bavel, G”d perhaps feared that humans were striving to be G”d’s equal, building a tower to come up and challenge G”d. And so G”d came down and confounded human speech. (And boy, is it ever still confounded. But a digression-imagine, for example, if we all still spoke the same language, and that was the language of the Torah? Then there wouldn’t be much room for the subtleties of interpretation caused by translation. And then where would we be? Interesting question. Are we better off being a Disney-fied “small world?” Send me your answers!)
Note, however, that G”d did absolutely nothing to the tower! Its one of those popular Bible misconceptions. G”d did not destroy the tower or send it crashing to the ground. No, G”d simply confounded the speech of the humans and scattered them around the earth. The tower, perhaps, was just abandoned and never finished and perhaps decayed on its own. But G”d took no direct action against the tower. So the comparison to the WTC is based on the erroneous idea that G”d also struck down midgal Bavel. Didn’t happen.
The rabbis generally maintain that the primary sin of those who built migdal Bavel and the reason G”d confounded the speech of humanity was because by all remaining in one place they were ignoring G”d’ instruction to spread over the earth. Modern Jewish scholarship tends to dispute with the rabbis (surprise, surprise) considering it quite a stretch to consider what was essentially a Divine blessing given to humankind (to become numerous and spread over the earth) to be a Divine commandment. In our own time, I think it’s just as much of a stretch to read into G”d’s blessings to humanity, and to our patriarchs, commandments that encourage really poor and questionable family planning.
Was the tower built simply as a matter of human hubris? Because it could be built? There may have been a very pragmatic reason for building a tall tower. Could it have been a place to find shelter from a future earth-devastating flood? Did humans distrust the covenant that the rainbow represented? (Josephus believed the tower to be an attempt to rise above the level of another flood, and he and other commentators point to the use of bitumen which could be a waterproofing technique.)
It should be noted that, offering some evidence that the story of migdal Bavel is an etiology with origins long pre-dating the Torah, there is a Sumerian story in which the god Enki also confounds human speech.
However, (and you knew that had to be coming, didn’t you?) let us examine this story and terms of what is now happening. One lesson it teaches us is that while working together to accomplish a task might isn’t always necessarily a good thing. That some in our midst protest the military actions we are taking in response to September 11, that some even see the acts as Divine retribution, that we don’t all agree on how we see things even in the light of September 11 is a good thing. It puts a positive frame around G”d confounding human language. We can see differences in language as also being metaphor for differences in viewpoints, desires, goals, interpretations, etc. If we work together too much, we might lose sight of who we are, and try to become gods, and assume that we can take any action we want at any time-that we are invincible, omnipotent, etc. We must value our differences, value the confounding.
And, to flip things around, it also gives us a goal. Perhaps the road to Moshiach or the messianic age is to eventually find a way, despite the confounding of our language and our being scattered all over the earth, to find our way back to a common language, and, metaphorically, back to Gan Eden and our innocence.
The story should also be a lesson to us to think about our relationship to our world and to Gd. Why did we build the WTC (or the Burj Khalifa, the Sears/Willis tower, or the Saturn V booster, or send humans to the moon, or the new One World Trade Center, or, well, you get the drift…?) Is it all about office space, efficient use of land on a crowded island? Or is there still a bit of hubris in it? To someone living in poverty in a 3rd world country, the WTC could be a sign of promise and hope, but it could also look like America giving the finger to the rest of the world, couldn’t it? Certainly, the new One WTC structure is, almost intentionally, giving the finger to the terrorists. It certainly wasn’t a necessary building in terms of NYC real estate needs. One WTC is a statement, and a prideful one at that. Not sure there’s any getting around that. I’m not saying it shouldn’t have been built (though, for me, the memorial itself is far more important than a replacement tall building) but in light of the growing discomfort with economic disparity in this country, what does One WTC symbolize, and whose interests does it truly represent? None of this is to suggest that anything that happened on September 11th was in any way justified. I was angry and sickened, and wanted to see justice done to the perpetrators and their supporters. The frontier justice part of me enjoyed our strong response. But the Jew in me, the lover of Torah, wants us to ask, when we look at the empty spaces where the towers stood, when we look at the destroyed walls of the Pentagon, what else we might be able to learn from this beside the obvious lesson to be better prepared to deal with terrorism?
Looking back at these thoughts 13 years later, knowing how we were dragged into a war under false pretenses, how we hunted down and killed the mastermind behind the plot yet now face newer and even stronger and scarier threats, how we all too willingly sacrificed our privacy and freedoms in the name of security causes me to want us to look even harder as our stories from the past. G”d did not knock down the original WTC towers anymore than G”d knocked down the tower of Babel. Humans were responsible for the construction and destruction of both. Think about that for a second.
Look at what our ancestors said. “Come, let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves..” )(Gen. 11:4) The tragedy that struck them notwithstanding, are we, too, building towers to the sky, sending rockets into space, just “to make a name for ourselves” ? Are Osama bin Laden and his ilk (and now ISIS/ISIL) doing what they are doing “to make a name for themselves” despite their protestations of religious, ethical and moral underpinnings? (And those are underpinnings, I believe, without a foundation, and I hope they crumble. I’ve read their holy Quran, and I’m hard pressed to find support in it for their actions.)
I support space research and sending man into space, simply for the sake of exploration, if nothing else. And surely so we can learn, explore, maybe meet other life forms, etc. I support engineers and architects finding clever and better ways to use technology, allowing them to build tall towers into the sky, so that people might live and work in them, and that we might sustain our world. (For I am not so naive as to believe that we could any longer sustain our world in a simple agrarian manner.) I, as an inconsistent pacifist, with great reluctance, can support building mighty structures to house the military that are sometimes needed to defend freedom and liberty. And I, with a great deal of reservation and apprehension, might support the actions that are sometimes necessary to insure that freedom. (The shadow of the Shoah lingers under the surface, challenging my pacifist tendencies.) All these and more, I support. But I would support none of these that were being done just to “make a name for ourselves.” There is a part of me that, as a U.S. citizen, is proud of the rebuilt One WTC. I’m equally proud that, as a U.S. citizen, I can also express my reservations about whether we really needed to build One WTC. Symbols have their place, but I wonder how the millions spent building One WTC might have gone to other good and worthy projects – perhaps affordable housing to help reverse the “tale of two cities” that NYC’s Mayor De Blasio says, rightly, that it has become. Is One WTC really just a symbol of politics and corporate hubris? I’m not sure.
It may or may not have been their motivation, nevertheless, we must not make the mistake of having the hubris that might have motivated those who built midgal Bavel. Let us be content to be the humans we are, and let G”d be what G”d will be.
©2014 (portions ©2001) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha
Noakh 5774 – Let’s Rebuild That Tower
Noakh 5773 – Nothing New
Noakh 5772 – The Long Haul
Noakh 5771 – Redux 5765 – A P’shat in the Dark
Noakh 5770 – Don’t Ham It Up
Noah 5768 – Redux 5761 – Getting Noticed
Noakh 5766-What A Nimrod! (Revised)
Noakh 5765-A Pshat In The Dark
Noach 5764-Finding My Rainbow
Noach 5763-Striving to be Human
Noach 5762-To Make a Name for Ourselves
Noach 5761-Getting Noticed
Noach 5760-What a Nimrod!