The Tower of Babel was always my favorite Bible story growing up. It’s a funny little story, nestled into Parashat Noah. What I really liked best about it when I was young was how much it was like Greek mythology I learned at school. Even if you think, as many modern progressive Jews today do, that the Bible is essentially a set of myths for our own faith tradition – most of our stories don’t read as “myths” in the same way. Most of the Torah, anyway, if not the whole Bible, explains behavior, the lessons are about morals. They are narratives that we must study and read into in order to get the full meaning of. They make little to no attempt to really explain the unexplainable (or things that were unexplainable at the time, but science has since explained) the way some myths from other traditions did. A lot of myths were as such: “Oh here’s this thing we have; how did it get here?” and then the myth directly explained, we have fire because Prometheus gave it to us, and here’s a whole story about what happened to him for that. Our Torah probably has more in common with ancient, no longer religiously believed mythologies than is obvious at first glance, but generally speaking, I’d say our stories are not like theirs. Except Babel. Here’s a story that tells us [Dramatic Reading]: The entire world spoke one language, but they used their common tongue for a terrible arrogant deed, and so they were punished with babble and forced to disperse, and thus to this very day different languages are spoken across the world, and that place was called Babel! [End Dramatic Reading]
So then, if generally our stories are meant to be about moral lessons, and here we have this anomalously straightforward factual explanation of language, what are we to take away from this? The Torah says, “And so, the whole world was of one language and uniform words.” Genesis Rabbah offers a few examples of what those “uniform words” might have been, but the point of all of the examples are that “uniform words” meant that not only were all the people of the world speaking the same language, but they used that language to articulate the same idea: to build a tower so high it would reach the heavens and they would all make a name for themselves. This was not the crazy idea of one egomaniac that others followed, this was a plan everyone was in on. Unfortunately, it was an ill-conceived plan for self-serving, fame-mongering reasons, and potentially also with the intent of overthrowing and replacing G-d with themselves, according to one Midrash on “uniform words”.
People need to be able to communicate and work together for society to function. However, sometimes we have to work with people who speak a different language, via an interpreter. Sometimes we work with people who speak our language, but as a secondary learned language, rather than a naturally absorbed first language, and so there may still be complications with the translation. And sometimes, even when we work with people who do speak our language just as well as we do, they have a different point of view, and so communication is difficult in a different way. If we give in to how difficult it is, the project won’t get done well, and we will make ourselves crazy! If we learn to work effectively and patiently with those different from us, anything is possible. Working on a school project with someone who has a different vision? Talk it out, work through why you don’t like their way – respectively – and maybe you will come to a compromise, or an entirely new idea that the two of you came up with together, and there is the great possibility that it will be worlds better than your first idea. Not because your first idea was bad, but because you were given the opportunity to see it through various lenses, and allow it to evolve. On a much bigger scale, if everyone were able to do this, than we would have world peace.
But not everyone is able to do this. And when we all share one idea, are of “uniform words,” who will speak out and say, “Hey, let’s not build this tower or we might end up confused and lonely”? It’s not always easy to be the one to speak out, but it’s important. And when it is our own idea being spoken against, it is just as important to listen, and just as hard. But we can all learn from our mythic ancestors who had no one to hold a contrary view, that they can indeed be really useful, no matter how hard. Regardless of what language – whether it is the literal language of their tongues or the ideological language of their hearts – anyone speaks, may we all find a way to still communicate and work alongside them as equals, in order that we may always have someone to tell us when we’re being fools. Amen.