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God's Case for Diversity #599

Parashat Noah

"Come let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves...." (Genesis 11:4)

God's Case ofr Diversity

In 2010, a building officially opened in Dubai, the height of which only the Torah could have foreseen.

To this day, the Burj Khalifa — housing 163 floors — is ranked as the world’s tallest building, extending more than half a mile into the heavens.

Around the world, architects and engineers have heralded its sleek design, its beauty, the efficiency of its operating systems, and its ability to move tens of thousands of workers, residents and consumers in and out every day.

But at what cost?

It was clear from the outset that project developers, along with the government of Dubai, wanted to make a worldwide statement: that this was to be the biggest, most luxurious, most opulent structure ever built.

It signaled a shift in world power and status from western countries like the United States and Great Britain, to the “new and prosperous” Middle East. As if size is everything.

Yet, there was a dark side. Reports from those who monitor world labor practices continued to express concern over low wages, oppressive living conditions and the number of suicides within the largely Asian work force.

Matters came to the world’s attention in May 2010, when a man described only as “an Asian” jumped off the 147th floor, allegedly after he was denied permission to return home for vacation.

And the world barely took notice.

The construction of the Burj Khalifa, and its obsession with size over matter, bears an uncanny parallel to a construction project undertaken in this week’s Torah portion.

It is known as the Tower of Babel.

The Torah tells us that after humanity continues to recover years after the Great Flood, leaders begin to conceive a building designed to extend high into the heavens.

Project managers are quoted as saying: “Come let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves....” (Genesis 11:4)

According to the Torah, this mega tower was ill conceived because “everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.” (Genesis 11:1)

As work continued to establish a unified human dominance over creation, God looks upon this endeavor and is not impressed.

The Midrash — our collection of oral ancient teachings — notes that when a boulder fell from the top of the tower, the people mourned for days, but when a worker plummeted to his death, there was no emotion expressed.  How history repeats itself.

So, God makes a decision. All of the world’s population is divided into 70 languages, so that no one could understand each other’s speech.

Construction ceases and humanity is scattered throughout the world.

I particularly love this Torah portion in view of certain conversations currently occurring within many western nations. So many countries seemed intent on unifying under one central national identify.

And almost everyone else becomes a hyphen or is deemed less central.

During the 1960s, it is observed that within America, we witnessed nationalities — supposedly under a banner of cultural pride becoming hyphenated. Hence, the birth of the African-American, the Italian-American, Native-American, and the Irish American, among others.

Yet, I’ve always struggled with the central premise of this nomenclature: If so many are to the left of the hyphen, then who is the authentic American?

But the Torah inspires us this week to consider, that there is universal value within all cultures. It reminds us through the ill-conceived Tower of Babel project, that when everyone is the same, humanity can ultimately lose its individuality, its compassion and its ethical perspective.

We as Jewish people — initially welcomed by every country which has opened its doors to us — has produced a positive and lasting cultural, ethical and economic impact of each of those places where we have dwelled.

And for that matter, so have other immigrant groups, which over time have emanated from God’s 70 original cultures.

In its breaking up of a single cultural monopoly the Torah sends us a message — that diversity is a positive force, if managed thoughtfully.

It is why rather than hyphenating or vilifying a culture, we need to open our doors to new ideas, new forms of expression and new perspectives.

Rather than condemning the outsider, the Torah reminds us 36 times to be welcoming to the stranger, for each of us — or our parents and grandparents — has been there.

And when we open our doors, and embrace diversity as a central value, we take the misguided energy of the Tower of Babel and combine diversity forces towards a common intercultural good.

We live in a prosperous country with enough work, food, shelter and opportunity for everyone.

Noted the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “If you are more fortunate than others, it’s better to build a longer table than a taller fence.”

Height and uniformity are not the issues. Rather, the quality of our values must guide us.

It’s a message embedded in the Torah thousands of years ago. There is no one culture, language or race on the right side of the hyphen.

Indeed, God tells us in this week’s Torah portion that diversity makes us all stronger.

Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Sat, July 4 2020 12 Tammuz 5780