And they said one to another: “…Let us build for ourselves a city and a tower whose top shall reach the skies, and we shall make for ourselves a name, lest we be scattered over the face of the entire earth.”
…And G-d descended… and scattered them from there across the face of the earth, and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel (confusion), for there G-d confused the language of the world. It was from there that G-d dispersed them over the face of the entire earth.
What was their sin? Their motives for building a city with a tower “whose top shall reach the skies” are quite understandable. Mankind was only just reconstructing itself after the Flood which had wiped out the entire human race save for Noah and his family. If fledgling humanity was to survive, unity and cooperation were of critical importance. So they set out to build a common city to knit them into a single community. At its heart they planned a tower which would be visible for miles, a landmark to beckon to those who had strayed from the city and a monument to inspire commitment to their common goal – survival. All they wanted was to “make for ourselves a name” – to ensure the continuity of the human race. And yet, their project deteriorated into a rejection of all that humanity stands for, into an open rebellion against their Creator and purpose. The result: the breakup of man-kind into clans and factions, and the onset of close to four thousand years of misunderstanding, xenophobia and bloodletting across the divisions of language and culture. Where did they go wrong?
The Hollow Tower
But precisely that was their error: they saw survival as an end in its own right. “Let us make a name for ourselves,” they said, let us ensure that human life take root once again on this planet so that there will be future generations who will read of us in their history books. But why survive? For what purpose should humanity continue to inhabit the earth? What is the content of the name and legacy they are laboring to preserve? Of this they said, thought, and did nothing. To them, life itself was an ideal, survival itself a virtue.
This was the beginning of the end. For nature, whether physical or human, makes it extremely difficult to maintain a vacuum; unless a soul or cause is filled with positive content, corruption will ultimately begin to seep in. A hollow name and shrine soon becomes a tower of Babel.
After the Flood
Never has the lesson of the Tower of Babel been more pertinent to our people than it is today. We, too, are a generation struggling to recoup after a Holocaust of destruction which threatened to erase us from the face of the earth. Reconstruction and survival are uppermost in our minds, and together, with the Almighty’s help, we are succeeding. At a time like this, it is extremely important not to repeat the error of the builders of Babel. Rebuild we must, but the objective must be more than a more enduring name, a greater city, a taller tower. If we are to survive, we must give import to our survival. We must fill our name with value, our city with significance, and crown the tower of our resurgence with the higher purpose to which we were created.
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Cheshvan 4, 5720 (November 5, 1959).