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   by Jacob Solomon

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Within the narrative of the Tower of Babel:

G-d came down to look at the city and the tower that the sons of man had built (11:5)

The S'forno considers the city-building initiative and where the tower came in.

He views the tower as the symbol of the city's outlook. G-d's "coming down" represents His investigating the motives for the whole project. It was rooted in selfishness: 'making ourselves a name'. It was a communal self-centered ego-trip. The urban agenda contained nothing on care for the weaker members of the community or other good works.

S'forno implies that there is nothing wrong with a city, just as there is nothing wrong with food and drink. It is what you do with what you have that counts. He cites the case of the wayward and rebellious son (Devarim 21:18-21), whereby a youngster who is entirely out of the control of his parents is, as last resort, judicially executed. The Gemara qualifies the 'wayward and rebellious' elements with the son's consuming huge quantities of meat and wine, and will ultimately find himself robbing and killing others to support his addictions. Better to die innocent than guilty.

This, explains the S'forno, is what G-d saw when He descended. He saw that the entire project was based on self-interest and showing-off, as well as the creation of a city deity above all deities. Like gluttony and alcohol, they all bring out the worst in people, and the worst in a community. Better that the city should be broken up here and now than develop into a negative communal force.

The Kli Yakar examines why the Tower of Babel was indeed a negative communal force. He frames his explanation within the Rabbinic saying: "The gathering of the wicked is bad for them and bad for the world; the scattering of the wicked benefits them and benefits the world" (Sanhedrin 71b). At first, those participating in the tower project were 'of one language and of common purpose' (11:1). They lived in peace. But as they grew in numbers, they feared they would have to split up, and scatter into different communities. Inevitably that would lead to conflicts over resources in the region. As the Kli Yakar explains "wars are a regular occurrence between the inhabitants of one region and those living in another". For that reason, the participants wished to transform their community into an urban culture so that they could prosper, stay together, and live in peace with one another.

That was very well. The Kli Yakar observes that people are attracted to cities that are successful and well-run. Large communities offer specialized work opportunities, and providing a range of goods and services not found outside. So "Come, let us build a city with a tower reaching to heaven" was a plan to turn a rural society into an urban community. It was a win-win situation; everyone would gain. They would be one nation, rather than a people forced to divide according to the available primary resources.

But as the Kli Yakar explains, the words "each person said to his neighbor" (11:3) implied that there was something very different at the individuals' level that overrode the community concerns. It was that each person had an agenda of his own. That was to "make a name" for himself (11:4). G-d penetrated the recesses of the individual minds of the participants in that gathering, He saw that these personal agendas conflicted. Each person would only be able to achieve the power and fame that he inwardly craved if he would dominate the other people. Indeed, "let us make ourselves a name" indicates that each participant saw the involvement in the tower project in terms of "how can my involvement make me powerful and famous?" Strife would not decrease, but greatly increase if they stayed together. With such a mindframe, it would be best for them to be immediately separated and scattered. The Kli Yakar wryly concludes by observing: "There is never peace among people whose agendas are solely to make a name for themselves. This has been shown by behavior among our own people".

As R. Yochanan HaSandlar declared: "Every gathering that meets with the right intentions (literally, 'for the sake of Heaven') will have an enduring effect. But one that is not with the right intentions will not have an enduring effect" (Ethics of the Fathers 4:14). Thus the tower project ended with "and from there G-d dispersed them all over the face of the land" (11:9).

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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