He named it Babel, because this was the place where G-d
confused (balal) the worlds language, and it was from
there that G-d dispersed [humanity] over all the face of the
By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat and wept,
As we remembered Zion.
Upon the willows in the midst of it
We hung our harps.
For there our captors demanded of us songs,
And our tormentors mirth, saying,
"Sing to us of the songs of Zion."
How can we sing the Lords song
On alien soil?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
May my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to my palate
If I do not remember you,
If I do not bring to mind Jerusalem
During my greatest joy.
Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom
The day of [the destruction of] Jerusalem,
Who said, "Raze it, raze it
To its very foundation."
O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one,
How blessed will be the one who repays you
In retribution for what you have inflicted on us
<- Psalms 137
this coming from Edom, with sullied garments from Basra? For
a day of vengeance is in My heart and the year of my redemption
Isaiah 63:1; 4
a sacrifice in Basra and a great slaughter in the land of
changes the times and the seasons (Daniel 2:21). If you had
merited you would have sat in Jerusalem and drank from the
waters of the Shiloach [spring], whose waters are clean and
sweet; now that you have not merited you were exiled to Babylon
and are drinking from the waters of the Euphrates [Peros],
whose waters are filthy and smelly Midrash, Pesichta of Eicha Rabba 19
entered the exile in Babylon, they thought that would not
survive because G-d had forsaken them
at that moment
G-d and His entire entourage joined them in Babylon. Because
of the great pain and cries they had at the rivers of Babylon
they merited that the Divine Chariot be revealed to Ezekiel
the prophet in Babylon. This consoled them and they no longer
feared the exile because they knew that G-d did not forsake
them Zohar II 2b. Tzemech Tzedek on Psalm 137
Sandstorms sweep over the Euphrates and paratroopers
from the 173rd Airborne Brigadedrop down into the cold rain
and mud in Northern Babylon. As the United States and British
Armies (or as they like to call it the coalition forces)
battle the modern-day Nevuchadnezzar of Iraq, the entire free
world is becoming steeped in the mire of the Middle Eastern
Thinking people are thinking ahead. So what happens after Saddam
Hussein is removed from power (hopefully with minimum bloodshed)?
Will this victory simply eliminate Arab/Muslin animosity to
the United States and the West? Will this end terrorism? And
what about Israel will Iraqs liberation change
the attitude to the Jewish land?
Paul Berman in last weeks cover story of the Sunday NY
Times Magazine (The Philosopher of Islamic Terror)
reminds us that the true war is hardly a military one. Citing
one of the philosophical leaders of modern Islamic fundamentalism,
Sayyid Qutb, Berman demonstrates that that the battle between
the Western world and Islam is primarily an ideological and
Without tooting the horn of this column, those of you reading
this column and the new edition of my book, Toward A Meaningful
Life, know that this has been my recurrent theme for the last
18 months: The real war which is going on now for thousands
of years, tracing back to the battles between Ishmael, Isaac,
Esau and Jacob is an ideological one: between matter
and spirit, between the Divine and the universe a war
to make our peace with G-d and to discover unity between our
natural lives and our Divine mission statement. (See the articles
of this column).
I greatly appreciate the e-mails some of you sent me pointing
out that Bermans basic thesis was published in these
articles. This is not about taking credit; rather it is about
recognizing that the roots of todays conflicts can only
be understood in Biblical context. Frankly, this point has
been almost impossible to communicate to most people today.
Just witness the hours upon hours of military
news reports on CNN, MSNBC, FOX and so on. Mention
not even one reference is made to the true nature of
Now is not the time to analyze the reasons for peoples
absolute resistance to hearing that the battles today are
ideological and religious about a world-view on life
and existence (I will try to elaborate on this in future articles).
Suffice it to say that this denial says much about our alienation
and disillusionment in religious answers to lifes problems.
We have grown accustomed and even spoiled by our prosperity.
Resultantly, we have mastered the fast food life
of the moment, and have lost touch with the eternal. No surprise
then that we simply dont relate to the historical, religious
and theological roots of todays global confrontations.
Thats why it is indeed gratifying to see that mainstream
NY Times published Bermans article, finally giving some
credence to seeing the deeper forces at work in the Middle
Eastern quagmire. What is equally gratifying is to read the
quotes of the Islamic intellectual hero, Sayyid Qutb, and
see how some of his ideas, despite some of their fundamental
distortions, so closely parallel deeper truths, albeit with
false conclusions. Indeed, even his distortions can help illuminate
truths that eluded Qutb himself.
As I have written here many times, one of the distinctions of
the Messianic age is: clarity (yisbariru vyislabnu
hadevorim). Clarity means recognizing the true
nature of things, which includes exposing both what is true
and what is false. Lack of clarity is when we cant see
our friends or our enemies. Ideas that snowball good ideas
and bad ones just confuse us. Qutbs writings
both his intelligent thoughts and his blatant distortions
and falsehoods can help us recognize the ultimate truth,
just as Marxs writings both in their brilliant
critique of Capitalism and insight on human nature and their
equally brilliant failure can help us better understand
and bring us to discover the true way G-d wants us to live.
Qutb writes, that the confrontation is not about economics,
politics or military domination; it is theological. The confrontation
is to defend against the active efforts of the Crusaders
and Zionists to annihilate Islam. Islam, Qutb
insists, is the true religion that corrected the distortions
of Judaism and Christianity and balances the secular and the
Christianity, Qutb writes, created a hideous schizophrenia
between the physical and the spiritual, between religion and
science, between the steely impersonality of modern power
and technology and the nature of the human spirit.
Berman doesnt make the analogy, but some of Qutbs
arguments sound awfully similar to Marxs concept of
alienation, how the Capitalist system reduces the
worker to no more than a commodity, thus leading to mans
alienation (Entausserung) and estrangement (Entfremdung)
from his essential self.
Qutb may have known something about Christianity he sure knows
nothing about Judaism. As profound a thinker he may be, his
hatred against Judaism is hardly philosophical. Among other
brilliant theories, Qutb argues that the Jews
acquired a slavish character during their Egyptian
captivity. This he writes about a people who are still here
for thousands of years specifically because they did not allow
themselves to bow and be enslaved by any people including
Muhammad. Indeed, The Maharal of Prague writes that the liberation
from Egypt imbued the Jewish people with an inherent personality
of freedom. Nothing would be able to enslave them ever again.
So much for Qutbs Jewish expertise.
here is not the place to demonstrate Qutbs ignorance
about Judaism. But it is no surprise; after all Qutb the Muslim
cannot be worse than Muhammad himself who became a virulent
anti-Semite after the Jews rejected him.
I will say is that, the true balance between the secular and
the sacred is only possible if all religions go back to the
original teachings of Abraham, father of all nations, as they
were consummated at Sinai. Every intelligent person should
know that when distortions set into any system, the truest
way of discovering the real facts is not by adding
new theories, but by tracing back to the original roots that
preceded human distortions.
therefore humbly submit that we go back to the beginning and
study Abrahams teachings, and how he passed them on
to his children. We need to understand how Abrahams
son Ishmael had extreme energy (of chesed), which needed to
be balanced with discipline (of gevurah). Abrahams grandson
Esau also had powerful energy (of gevurah), which needed to
be balanced by kindness (chesed). Jacob then redeemed
Abraham (Isaiah 29:22), because Jacob Tiferet
balances these two forces. (See my article The
in turn sets the stage for the revelation at Sinai, when Moses
receives the Torah (called tiferet) G-ds blueprint
for life, how to transform the material universe into a Divine
the time the children of Ishmael and Esau rejected the Torah.
They were not yet ready. Generations later they would begin
to embrace the teachings that trace back to their ancestor,
Abraham as formalized at Sinai (see Esau,
Ishmael and Sinai).
the centuries that followed Esau and Ishmaels descendants
would go through their growing pains in learning how to balance
religious beliefs and daily life. This would not be an easy
process; history is witness to the devastation and bloodshed
wreaked by this journey. But slowly, slowly, Sinai would seep
into the fibers of all people.
The process concludes with the refinement of the last two powers, Edom (Esau) and Ishmael,
which leads to the Messianic age a world where there
is no more destruction and terror and all children of Abraham
serve the One G-d of Abraham in peace and harmony.
Edom and Ishmael are meeting on the banks of Babylon.
By the rivers of Babylon two things are happening at once. Its
a time to weep to weep over the losses, the razing,
the destruction of Jerusalem the center of existence
where heaven meets earth, the force that balances spirit and
The tears come pouring even more when our captors insist that
we sing. Its not enough that the material world is subjugating
us and that we are displaced from our spiritual center, but
it also demands of us to go into total denial. Sing
things are great! the world yells at us.
Forget about your past, forget Jerusalem why
dont you perform a concert for us?! Thats
how powerful the pull of conformity can be.
So step one is to weep and remember. Yes, weeping isnt
about sadness; its about remembering. Even as we sit
at the rivers of Babylon and drink from the unclean waters
of the Euphrates we always remember Zion and the oneness it
represents. And this memory is our salvation. Through our
tears and our awareness we begin freeing the energy that lays
trapped and has been drawn (like rivers) into Babylon
(see Siddur, Haoro lTikkun Chatzot, 152b).
And through our pain and cries we merit to revelation
and we recognize that G-d and His entourage is with us, sitting
at the rivers of Babylon. [As they were] exiled to Babylon,
the Shechina was with them.
What can we each of us do about this in our personal lives?
if we are not personally fighting the physical war on the
Euphrates and Tigris, each of us has our own battles by the
rivers of Babylon.
Babylon represents confusion [He named it Babel, because this was
the place where G-d confused (balal) the worlds language,
and it was from there that G-d dispersed [humanity] over all
the face of the earth Genesis 11:9]. It also refers
to the soiled
garments of mundane matters and worldly desires (Tanya,
Iggeret HaKodesh ch. 4). The rivers of Babylon refers to the
(the rivers) of human reason which is intermingled with lies
(Tzemech Tzedek, Psalm 137), the rivers that channel energy
and feed the confusion and blind distortions of the material
world. Mundane matters and material desires cloud our judgment
and dont allow us to see our souls mission.
Our first step in fighting our Babylonian/confusion battles
is awareness: To rise above the confusion of Babylon and recognize that our true home and center is not at these
rivers. At times we must also have the courage to weep and remember.
Ironically, confusion itself the awareness of our confusion
gives us the power to discover clarity. Knowledge of
a disease is half its cure.
The Babylon of life reflects our personal and collective confusions,
the confusions of history and religion, all the uncertainty and doubts that pervade our lives the confusion between
true and false, good and evil.
As we sit at the rivers of confusion we have before us the unprecedented
opportunity to recognize that the distortions that have shaped
life as we know it today. We have now an opening a
crack in history that allows us to see the forces within
and the birthing possibilities.
But awareness is just the first step. The most powerful counterforce
to confusion is unity. Our mission today is to once and for
all figure out how to integrate our lives what we do
and who we are. To fuse your spiritual and material needs
your body and soul, matter and spirit.
Indeed, of all rivers it will be the Euphrates that will part
in the near future into seven streams (Isaiah 11:15). This
parting represents the unity of opposites on the highest levels
the power to unite heaven and earth, land and water.
At Sinai (which followed the parting of the Red Sea) we were
first given this power. Over the centuries nations and religions
have been struggling to find the right equilibrium between
individuality and responsibility, between personal freedom
and G-ds will. Finally, now, as we sit at the rivers
of Babylon, we can and must make our peace with Sinai.
nations of the world must and will embrace their legacy --
to integrate G-d into their lives, teach G-ds laws to
their children and infuse spirituality into all systems. Jews
must fulfill their calling of being a "light unto nations,"
bringing Sinai and its teachings to all.
as the nations especially Esau and Ishmael confront
the world and each other, with Israel as usual in the middle,
all on the banks of Babylon we have our opportunity.
From amidst the confusion of our times, we must
create a new world, a world in which all nations speak one
tongue and serve one G-d unlike Babylon whose tongues
were confused in their defiance of G-d.
would also like to remind Qutb, that indeed, unlike Islam
and Christianity, Judaism categorically discourages conversion
to Judaism. Every human being is created in the Divine
Image, and each has his/her destiny in serving G-d.
One need not be or become Jewish to have a relationship with
Our role today is for each
of us to discover our Divine mission and calling, and help
inspire others to do the same. We have to prepare the world
for the time when the entire preoccupation of the all nations
will be to know G-d (Maimonides end of Laws of Kings)
a world filled with Divine knowledge as the waters cover
the sea. The entire world will serve G-d in unity, I
will turn to the peoples a pure tongue that all shall call
upon the name of G-d and serve Him with one consent.
So here we are, at the rivers
of Babylon once again. This time, we can part the river and
discover the power of one sitting at the rivers of Babylon.