Stuart Fickler, Ph.D. 

Chapter 11 – Heaven Can Wait


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." (Genesis 11:4)


Thus far on our journey we have seen the narcissistic behavior of humankind sow discord in personal and social relationships. The consequences have been catastrophic. Now, after the Flood, they have been given the Noahide Laws.  These offered the promise of harmonious relationships among all human beings. Will humanity be able to fulfill the promise?

At the beginning of the story of the Tower of Babel, it appears that humanity has finally learned the lesson of harmonious behavior.  Genesis 11:1-4 tells that they had one language and were unified in their purpose to build a great city. In order to attempt such a magnificent undertaking, they must have learned to work cooperatively. To have reached this level of civilized behavior, they must also have developed a legal system to resolve disputes. It appears that the lessons of individual and social responsibility had been learned. It seems that all of the conditions for a great, unified civilization had come together on the plain of Shinar. What went wrong?

The Zohar (Vol. I, p.74b) interprets the text in the following way: AND THE WHOLE EARTH WAS OF ONE LANGUAGE AND ONE SPEECH, i.e., the world was still a unity with one single faith in the Holy One, blessed be He. BUT AFTERWARDS THEY JOURNEYED AWAY … AND THEY FOUND A PLAIN, that is, they made a discovery, by means of which they shook off their faith in the Most High. Although humankind had subdued its narcissistic behavior enough to form a cooperative society, there remained one crucial relationship that they chose to ignore. As the text tells us, they set out to make a name for themselves. They celebrated their accomplishments, and had no further need for God. They had achieved the lofty position where their destiny was entirely in their hands. Numbers Rabbah (IX:24) tells us that the people who made the Tower of Babel only grew haughty before the Omnipresent. Here, the text connotes self-exaltation or lack of gratitude.  

Once more, narcissism violated relationship. This time, it was the relationship between humanity and God. Without it, the harmony of humankind was lost. Again God responded measure for measure. If the unity of humankind separated humanity from God, then humanity would be separated amongst themselves. Their language was confounded and they were scattered throughout the earth. 

Here again, we see the importance that Torah attributes to the power of speech (see Chapter 4). One common language can be a unifying force that leads to great achievements. On the other hand, lack of a common language is a divisive force that separates and isolates societies. As an example, think what it would feel like to be in a place where you don’t speak the local tongue, and no one speaks your language.

Our sages assert that the fault of the generation of the Tower of Babel was idolatry (e.g., Exodus Rabbah XLI:7). The Zohar, in the reference cited above, adds: Similarly here, “They found a plain in the land of Shin'ar”, a place in which they conceived the idea of forsaking the Supernal Power for another power. We have observed that they sought to elevate themselves above God. What does this have to do with graven images? 

The Lubavitcher Rebbe in a lesson on the first Noahide Law provides the answer: Acknowledge that there is only one G‑d who is Infinite and Supreme above all things. Do not replace that Supreme Being with finite idols, be it yourself, or other beings. Idolatry is the ultimate act of narcissism.  As the text of Genesis 11 clearly states, the people of Babel sought to control God by metaphorically elevating themselves above God. When we try to make God into what we want God to be, we are practicing idolatry.

Over time, idolatry has taken many forms. There are the graven idols which are projections of ourselves, representing the power we wish to possess. There was the time when kings became gods, such as the pharaohs of Egypt and the emperors of Rome. In more modern times there were the elite that claimed we no longer had any need for God. They asserted that humanity had matured to a point where it, alone, could establish a harmonious and just world. Governments were formed, legal systems were established, and nations succeeded for a while. Then, the cycle of the Tower of Babel was repeated. What went wrong with each attempt?

One painful modern example is that of Germany before World War II. It had one of the most law-abiding populations in the world. It had achieved the highest level of intellectual and artistic accomplishment. Many considered it a model of enlightened civilization. Then, virtually overnight, it plunged into the pit of depravity. How could it happen? Idolatry?

In Chapter 2, I discussed a concept that is shared by both Judaism and Science. There are certain principles and boundaries that come from beyond ourselves. Whether we call them conservation laws or God-given principles, we cannot try to change or violate them without serious consequences. When we recognize that simple fact, the age of idolatry will end.

Maimonides insisted that the principal purpose of the Torah was the removal and utter destruction of idolatry, and all that is connected therewith, even its name, and everything that might lead to any such practices (Guide, Part III, Chapt. XXIX). What Maimonides was referring to is what we call tikkun olam (repairing the world). That is the time promised by the Prophets when idolatry will end and the scattered peoples will reunite in a world of harmonious understanding. How will that miracle be achieved? The answer, of course, is in the Torah.

[Note: There may be a historical counterpart to the Tower of Babel. Etemenanki (the house, the foundation of heaven and earth) is a ziggurat in the city of Babylon built before the 18th century BCE, and possibly as early as the 23rd century BCE.]

With God’s help, to be continued. Next time: “Go to Yourself”

Emet v’chaim.