Noach: The Birth of Nations


As we continue to struggle with global unrest, what has been coined by some as a ‘clash of civilizations,’ it seems wise to retrace the steps of history and find the root of cultural and religious divisions. Even if we aren’t quite experiencing (yet?) a global clash, there is no doubt that we are facing major conflicts between nations and their ideologies or politics. Clearly, much insight could be gleaned from understanding the forces that have shaped these differences, and have led to misunderstanding, xenophobia and wars.

Today’s colliding national interests compels us to ask: When was national diversity born?

This week’s Torah portion tells us about the events that transpired close to four thousand years ago which resulted in the breakup of mankind into clans and factions, divided by  language, race and culture.

Following the great flood, the descendants of Noah began rebuilding the world as one large community.

At first, the entire earth had one language and uniform words. When the people migrated from the east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar (Babylon), and they settled there. They said to one another…: “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower, whose top shall reach heaven. Let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered all over the face of the earth.”

G-d descended to see the city and the tower, which the children of men had built. G-d said: “Behold, they are a single people, all having one language, and this is the first thing they do! Now nothing they plan to do will be unattainable for them! Come, let us descend and confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

From that place G-d scattered them all over the face of the earth, and they ceased building the city. Therefore He named it Babel, because this was the place where G-d confused (balal) the world’s language, and it was from there that G-d dispersed [humanity] over all the face of the earth.

These nine (!) verses tell us the entire story of cultural and racial fragmentation. All abuses of power, all corruption of nations originates from individual or collective arrogance. Consequentially, this arrogance inevitably erodes the ‘towers’ nations build and leads to their dispersion and destruction.

Witness all the empires throughout history, study their rise and fall and you find the same pattern emerging again and again. Overconfidence, arrogance, supremacy – a need to dominate and control, a lack of humility – always lies at the heart of each downfall.

So, so much can be understood from the Tower of Babel account. Each line is replete with messages. Every nation and community, indeed every company and individual would do well to study these nine verses.

Birthings always expose for us essential truths. The birth of nations – cultural and racial diversity – allows us the opportunity to review how we are using or abusing our power.

Every time a nation is born it must define its mission: Is its purpose to “make a name for itself’ or to ‘make a name’ for a higher purpose. As the nation builds and grows it will need to continuously review and reaffirm its mission.

We may have accumulated great wealth and muscle, we may have developed superb communications and technologies. But are we using all these gifts for anything more than to arrogantly build a ‘name for ourselves’? Is there higher purpose to our monuments and edifices – is there enduring power to our mighty cities and towers – an eternal legacy that will last longer than the name of any individual?

Following September 11th, none of us have to be reminded of the vulnerability of our stone cities and steel towers. We all have been rudely – violently – awakened to the destruction wreaked by racial/religious divisions.

How uncanny – how prescient – that the fall of the Tower of Babel was caused by events that so closely parallel the causes and events around the 9/11 fall of the towers. (No way does this justify the actions of the terrorists which amounts to nothing less than blatant murder; yet regardless, the analogous lessons we derive are still striking and relevant).

Will our cities and towers be ones of Babel, confounded and confused, will we continue busily building a ‘name for ourselves’ or will we build a name for G-d?

Will our national diversity create a deeper harmony – with each nation, community and individual using its unique skills to build and reveal the higher unity of G-d’s name; or will we sink into an abyss, where each of us is separately consumed with self-glorification.

Will we build a better world together, or will we self destruct (G-d forbid) as each of us attempts to hollowly ‘make a name for ourselves,’ and in effect widen the gap between nations and between people, until we cancel each other out.

This week’s portion teaches us that we have the power to choose. Armed with this knowledge – and with the retrospective wisdom derived from the lessons of history – we must ask ourselves: Have we learned something? Are we listening?


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Steve Lack
13 years ago

R. Simon – thanks for the truthful observations and comments about our history and how weve learned so little from it. Its not so bad to want to make a name for ourselves. Whats bad is knowing full well that to do so means first humbling down, studying and living Torah, leaving as much space as possible for Him; in a word: Making a Name for HaShem! Thats when we make a name for ourselves, precisely when we realize WHY were here and why rings in our eyes and bellies and opinions abouit everything only define what we are not. Torah vMitzvoth! Revealing the Kedushah in even the mundane, but first dropping the Yesh and going back for a bit to Ain. Chodesh Tov! Steve

Esther Sarah Evans
13 years ago

It seems what you said boils down to this: whoever wants eternal fame must concentrate his efforts on preserving all mankind, that the worth of an individual is only as good as his contribution to his community, to the world, the universe – and above all in the name of and thanks to HaShem always.

13 years ago

I am a retired teacher, a student of history & current events all my life. I have also always embraced & enjoyed cultural diversity. From the state our society is in today, which is beyond scary, it is clear that people do not learn from history, they dont even look back, but only live in the moment. There is no vision of the future, eyes are not even open to what needs to be done. I truly fear for my future grandchildren on every level.

13 years ago

One should search in english vocabulary : each versus every. this game are still gamed. I spend my life in Poland.

Denise Urban
13 years ago

Your article came at a crucial time this morning. I was so weary with trying to make peace with my family. For over 30 years I have been praying for them that the they see what I see in Hashem, Israel and in mitzvahs. This week was such a test that it wore me down and I just said to Hashem… Why do I even bother?

This OP ED is conformation to go on in doing good despite the unsettling situations of life.

My father Joseph was blessed when an unknown Rabbi took him in and taught him the Torah. The synagogue was on Remsen Street in Brooklyn. I believe it was the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue. My father was a very young child during the early 1920s. His connection to this unknown rabbi came right after the Influenza Pandemic in NYC. My dads mother (20s) and his sister (new born) died during that epidemic and I believe that if it werent for that Rabbi at Brooklyn Heights my life would not be as blessed as it is now.
I have felt that connection since a child to Israel.
Thank you for your weekly op ed articles

esther Mulroy
13 years ago

One example that we are unable to care for all humanity is the resultant oil spill..It is far worse then we know. In our confused state, are we really trying to destroy ourselves? We need to think about this reality.Our own human Babel,the oil spill.

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