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   by Jacob Solomon

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They said to one another: 'Come, we will build a city with a tower up to the Heavens, and make ourselves a name, lest we are dispersed on the face of the Earth' (11:4).

This is one of the central verses in the story of the Tower of Babel. People assembled "in the land of Shinar… Babylon" and built a city and tower. They said one to another: "Come, we will build a city with a tower up to the Heavens, and make ourselves a name, lest we will are dispersed on the face of the Earth" (11:4). (The tower may have well been a ziggurat, several of whose remains have been found in that part of the Middle East.)

A reading of the text appears to illustrate the normal development of Mankind at the time - the mid-third millennium BCE. People were moving from a pastoral-nomadic existence to create a settled, city society: "they journeyed from the east, and found a valley in the land of Shinar, and settled there" (1:3). It describes an episode of urbanization: early cities in the region actually date from that period - so for that matter, did the much more stable Egyptian civilization.

Rashi brings a Midrashic tradition explaining the importance of the tower. The local ancients held that a global calamity was to occur once every 1,650 years. There were 1,650 years from Adam to Noah and the Ark. There would be another macro-disaster 1,650 years after the Flood. Building a tower, so it was believed, would support the Earth, and prevent mass destruction.

However, the simple explanation would focus on the city as well as the tower. The city was for living in, the tower was for defense, and "making ourselves a name" would turn it into a prestige project. Outsiders would visit the city; it would be good for business.

So it was hardly an unreasonable thing to do the time. What aroused G-d's ire to the degree of His "mixing up their languages so no-one understands anyone else" and "dispersing them over the face of the Earth"?

It may be suggested that the negative aspects of the city and tower of Babel was the priorities of those involved. The focus was on two things - a city, and a prestige project. Something glittering and new, not forming a society that supported its participants. The emphasis was on the buildings, not the people. Buildings serve people and society, not the other way round. Each person was thinking what kudos he could get out of the project, and no further. In modern terms, it would be equivalent to building an urban center without any thought of those who were going to live there; just to what degree it would be famous and "on the map". There was no talk of hospitals, schools, social services, ways of enabling people to make a living, and means of supporting the weaker members of society. In short, the plan was a prestige project rather than Utopia. It focused on what outsiders would think of the place: "making ourselves a name" rather than serving the interest in improving and developing society through positive urbanization.

The story thus shows a distinct false start to the process of urbanization. Its basis was something at the core of human weakness: those involved in building the city cared only about what outsiders thought of them. Each individual ("each person said to each other") thought of what he might get out of it, and no further.

Thus G-d's response was measure for measure. Such a project was built on the wrong social foundations. People were working together for a project that was self-centered rather than mutually beneficial. It would spawn selfishness rather than advance civilization. Therefore He interfered with their communications by "mixing their languages" and de-urbanizing them by "dispersing them over the face of the Earth".

This indicates an important lesson today: do people work to serve society, or do people work to get kavod: self-prestige? The message of this passage is that in the long term at least, the society that succeeds is the one that engages in projects to serve society at large rather than a source of prestige and kavod for the individuals involved….

For those looking for more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at and on the material on the Haftara at .

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.

Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site:

Also by Jacob Solomon:
From the Prophets on the Haftara

Test Yourself - Questions and Answers


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