The Tower of Babel

Rabbi Israel Chait - Transcribed by students


It is a well-established principle in Judaism that a punishment from G-d is unique. When G-d punishes man, it is for his betterment. However, the generation of the flood was destroyed because there was no justification for their existence. In contrast, the generation that built the tower of Babel was not destroyed. We must therefore understand the reason that their destruction was not warranted. We must also comprehend the nature of their punishment and the manner in which it was beneficial for them.

The reason that G-d prefers for their not being destroyed was because their sin was only against G-d. This is in contrast to the generation of the flood whose decadence was prevalent with respect to interpersonal relationships as well. However, the “dor haflaga”, generation of the dispersement, had extremely cordial and respectful relations and acted peaceably toward each other. This concept must be explained. Simply because their interpersonal relations were peaceful and harmonious is hardly sufficient justification for their salvation. A person can be totally wicked but his relationship with his friends can be eminently serene. The Nazi’s were very cordial, cultured and peaceful towards their fellow Nazi’s. It is evident that the Torah is teaching us a more esoteric message.

We must also explain what they were attempting to build. Genesis 11:4 states “And they said: Come let us build a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” What was their purpose and objective in building this tower?

In order to appreciate the significance of this entire incident we must elaborate some well-defined psychological principles.

Every human being has a certain emotional make up. These emotions - although somewhat controllable - nevertheless find a way to be expressed in terms of human behavior. A person has certain emotional needs and desires and is capable of repressing them to a great degree, but these needs will ultimately find some form of expression in terms of that individual’s conduct. As a result, if the person is successful in controlling his emotions concerning one area of his behavior, invariably, these emotions will find an outlet for their expression in an another area of his conduct. An illustration of this is when a person is angry because of a business transaction that failed. Instead of expressing his anger at his business partner who mishandled the transaction, he might go home and break something. The emotions of man are flexible enough, that they will seek a “Substitute Formation,” an alternate way to express itself.

The emotions of man are also very cunning and can operate in a disguised fashion. They can function in such a way as to be hidden - even to the person himself. Madison Avenue, the renowned center of advertising, carefully manipulates the emotions in this manner. A person who fantasizes that he’s a great cowboy will smoke Marlboro. These are called hidden persuaders. A person is not just buying the product, but he is buying the underlying fantasy it represents. If one were to ask the person if he was a cowboy, of course he would reject such a notion.

All these characteristics of our emotions and the methods in which they work together regarding the many nuances of human behavior, can help us understand the events surrounding the Tower of Babel.

Upon observing mankind’s conduct in building the Tower of Babel, G-d makes the following comment in Genesis 11:6, “And the lord said: Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is what they begin to do, and now nothing will be withheld from them, which they propose to do.”

To help us appreciate this observation we must elucidate a very basic psychological process that accounts for much of man’s altruistic behavior. Psychologists call this mechanism “identification”. The greater effect an event has upon a person, the more significant the event. Thus, an earthquake in China killing 10,000 people might not seem as tragic to you as the mugging of your next-door neighbor. Conversely, a person stricken with cancer might bequeath great sums of money to anti smoking crusades. However, the tragic effects of cancer were surely known prior to his misfortune. Although a person’s efforts in this regard are praiseworthy and humanitarian, and contribute to the benefit of society, it is not the highest level of just conduct. A rare individual, who functions according to an extremely high standard of human justice, is aroused mainly by the event and not the manner in which he is affected thereby. However, identification is generally a desired emotion that accounts for much of the good in society and allows a person to commiserate with his fellow man. If one lacks identification, the consequences could be tragic.

Now we can begin to comprehend G-d’s observation. “Behold they are one nation with one language” Language is a strong factor with respect to human identification. Language represents unification. Private groups have their own special language and secret codes. Kids usually have their own slogans and phrases to help them identify with other kids - against the adults. Thus, G-d observed that mankind was one nation with one language. There was great identification amongst, and unification with, their fellow man. However, we must analyze how this identification contributed to their building the Tower of Babel. In Genesis 11:5 the Torah states, “And G-d came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men built.” Rashi comments that this term the “children of man” is superfluous. He thus comments that these are the children of ‘man who rebelled against the one G-d’ that were saved from the flood.

We therefore see that the sin of these people was their rebellion against G-d. However, their animosity and rebellion against G-d was really a result of their identification with their fellow man.

Man’s basic innate nature is aggressive. This is attested to by the many atrocities committed by man throughout the annals of history. Man generally directed his aggression in the form of hateful acts perpetrated upon his fellow man. However, the generation of the Tower of Babel had a tremendous sense of identification with their fellow man, fostered by their being one nation with one language. It was also strengthened by their being the survivors of the Flood. This shared experience as alluded to by Rashi, also caused them to identify with each other. This identification prevented their aggressive conduct from being directed against their fellow man. Thus, man’s aggressive proclivities were directed against G-d. Their emotions of hatred and their aggressive tendencies found a substitute formation, namely G-d. Their inherent aggressive tendencies, which are usually directed one against another, now found an alternate means of expression - a rebellion against G-d. However, these people whose ancestors were recently obliterated by G-d because of their corruption, could not in good sense, express open hostility and hatred to G-d. Thus, this hatred presented itself in a different way. They said, “Let us build a city and a tower with its head in the heavens.”

The tower represents architecture. This building was not built to be functional, as they were not going to use the building. On the contrary, it was a manifestation of their own power and importance. This is what architecture represents throughout civilization. Albeit the Eiffel Tower, or The Coliseum, all great architectural works are merely an expression of the power and significance of that particular society.

Individuals as well display this same attitude. A person who lives in a mansion with a huge driveway, is also generally creating an impression of his own self importance. Therefore the peoples’ method for rebelling against G-d was demonstrating the greatness of man’s accomplishments. It is the deification of man.

Mankind, by building the Tower of Babel, was manifesting the greatness of man, and in so doing, was rebelling against G-d. This was the sin of this generation.

Halacha recognizes this emotion. The migdal, tower, was an elaborately ornate and beautifully appointed structure intended to inspire man. However, these emotions were directed towards the greatness of man, and not G-d. Conversely, halacha (Jewish law) demands that the tallest building in a community must be the synagogue. G-d must maintain the greatest prominence in our minds.

G-d thereby concludes verse 6, that mankind, because of this attitude of the overestimation of their own self importance, will feel that nothing can be withheld from them and that there is nothing that they can not accomplish. G-d realized that this emotion was dangerous and must be dealt with accordingly. Thus in Chapter 11 verse 7, G-d responds, “Come, let us go down and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” G-d was confounding their language as the vehicle to break their identification with each other. Once they had different languages, different cultures would flourish. When G-d changed their culture and language, hatred and jealousy commenced. When each society has its own unique culture and language, the identification between the different societies is mitigated greatly. This enables man’s aggressive instinct to express itself, by acts of hatred and aggression against another society. Therefore G-d’s punishment (corrective measure) was breaking the strong sense of identification that existed throughout mankind. The emergence of different societies with different cultures erased the identification that had previously existed between these groups. Consequently, man’s aggressive tendencies were thereafter naturally directed against citizens of a different society with different values. The natural outgrowth of G-d’s punishment is a civilization where there are constant wars between different segments of society. However, the alternative would be worse, whereby mankind would rebel against G-d. Judaism maintains that mankind will experience constant strife until the coming of the Messiah. It is only when Messiah comes that people will possess the proper philosophical knowledge. Then mankind will be able to channel their energies to the acquisition of wisdom and gain a love of G-d. It is only then that mankind can experience true peace.

We can therefore appreciate the necessity of G-d’s punishment. However we must contrast the generation of the Flood that had to be destroyed and the generation of the Tower of Babel, which was spared. G-d’s punishment was obviously more lenient with the generation of the Tower of Babel. The bothersome problem is that hatred and rebellion against G-d seems to be a greater evil than the corruption of man. Yet, the generation of the Flood was eradicated and the generation of the Tower of Babel was spared.

The proper determination of this problem demands that we pose a different question. We must not investigate which malady was ‘worse’, but rather, which transgression is ‘curable’. If a disease is incurable, then it leads to an inevitable end. However, if there is a cure, then there is hope, irrespective of the severity of the disease. The citizens of the generation of the Flood were totally overwhelmed by their evil inclinations, their instinctual appetites. Their intellectual faculties were not functioning and thus there was no way to influence them. The generation of the Tower of Babel however suffered the disease of overestimation of the self. Although G-d cannot fathom an arrogant person, as the power of the ego is great – denying G-d – yet, such a person can still be reached. The conceited individual still operates on a rational level; he is just inflicted with the malady of the overestimation of his own self-importance.

The Rabbis tell us that the generation of the flood had no shalom, peace, but the generation of the Tower of Babel had serenity. Peace requires self-control and intelligence. The generation of the Tower of Babel, although unified for a terrible cause, still possessed the essential elements required for harmony. Therefore, G-d’s punishment was to confound their language and break their identification. This resulted in man’s aggressive instinct to be directed away from G-d. Unfortunately, society is at a level whereby man’s aggressive instincts express themselves by man’s perpetuation of great atrocities against his fellow man. People usually try to deny their aggressive instincts and ultimately that causes much bloodshed. Judaism, on the contrary demands that a person lives his life based upon reality. A person must be aware of his aggressive tendencies. It is a universal emotion that stems from the instinctual part of man’s nature. However, a person must learn to subordinate his instinctual desire and to live his life based upon wisdom. The Talmud tells us if a person is overly aggressive he should become a butcher. A person should recognize his instinctual nature, and learn to control it. Piety is not the denial of ones emotional needs and desires. Judaism does not preach asceticism and abstinence. A chacham, a wise person, is one who recognizes his needs and desires and channels his energies properly. A person cannot deny his emotions. This was part of the sin of the generation of the Tower of Babel. They really denied their aggression towards G-d and directed it to expressions of their own self-importance. Thus, these emotions sought satisfaction by the building of the tower. Through the means of architecture they satisfied their emotional needs.

Upon the arrival of the Messiah, civilization will appreciate the proper philosophical values and will guide their lives based upon wisdom. Only then will man recognize his aggressive nature and properly channel his energies, and subordinate his instinctual drives. Only in such a society can we experience true peace.