Sign In Forgot Password

Living in a World of Babel #799

10/20/2023 05:22:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Noach

“If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.” (Genesis 11:7)

Living in a World of Babel

What if we lived in a world where everyone was the same?

Same language. Same ideas. Same pursuits.

What would happen if there was no diversity in the world—where everyone followed the whims of one leader or one ideology?

What would happen if society pursued what 1984 author George Orwell termed “groupthink,” with no room for debate, discussion or dissent?

The world is getting a taste of that reality this week, as we begin to unravel events that launched one of the most heinous crimes ever committed against the Jewish people.

How appropriate that this week the Torah tackles this exact topic in the aftermath of the Great Flood, as society devolves following the death of Noah.

Each of us knows the Noah story. It is, in part, an inspiring account of human survival. In advance of the Great Flood, Noah gathers animals in pairs and waits out 40 days of torrential rains.

Once the rain subsides, his offspring begin to repopulate the earth. And, as was the case with the progeny of Adam and Eve, the world pursues a destructive path.

The Torah talks about a world where “everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.” (Genesis 11:1) And because everyone is the same—a radical idea emerges. Humankind devotes its collective energy to building a structure that towers over—and therefore outranks—God.

The Torah recounts humanity’s collective goal: “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 is concerned and notes: “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how the people have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.” (Genesis 11:7)

Subsequently, God divides the world into 70 languages so that “no one could understand each other’s speech.”

And so, the failed attempt to build the Tower of Babel, results in God embracing the concept of diversity, where according to Jewish tradition, “No one can ever say ‘my ancestry’ is more noble than yours."

As I observe events unfold both in Israel and beyond, I wonder whether parts of the Babel story apply today.

What happens when humanity clusters, embraces radicalism, and becomes void of context? We create a world of extremism and evil pursued supposedly “in God’s name.”

Judaism struggles with the idea of evil. While many religions view life as a battle between God and light—Satan and darkness—Judaism is not so sure.

Judaism holds that within each of us, there rests a spark of God. We are created in God’s image—Tzelem Elohim. After humanity was created, God declared that not only was this a good thing—but a “very good” thing.

So, if you are like me, you ponder how—within the human landscape—were the atrocities committed 14 days ago against peaceful young people and innocent Israeli residents even possible?

Two weeks after one of the most horrific massacres in Jewish history, while my fury has slightly abated, I am still in search of answers.

Have we lost the ability to communicate, interact and, most of all, understand each other—so much so that the acts of monsters are embraced by demonstrators rolling through the streets of our cities?

Too many, these days, are cut off from facts and reality. And this has led to their radicalization—not only in the Middle East, but closer to home.   I believe people are good. Often when the Torah accuses humanity of societal sins, it singles out its leaders for leading their followers astray.

With the advent of social media and other forms of rapid communication—too many are context- and content- deprived. And there are too many corrupt and hell-bent “opinion leaders” poised to fill this void.

Indeed, as Israel prepares to cross into Gaza and extricate the engineers of hatred, murder and brutality—as distasteful as war may be—we must throw our support behind this effort. 

For, if left untouched, this cancer of hatred threatens to consume the entire world.

Like you, I abhor war and the loss of innocent life. I have profound concerns about the fate of children and war tactics which jeopardize their health and safety.

But after centuries of being the victim, we must for once look after our own wellbeing. Our very survival is at stake.

At home, we must build and strengthen bridges with our fellow citizens of many backgrounds and faiths, in order to avoid becoming the victims of baseless hatred.

In next week’s parashah, we will be introduced to Abram—later to become Abraham—as the Torah makes a case that the world must not rest upon uniformity and radicalization, but rather upon a life system of understanding, care and compassion.

Indeed, today’s devil may not dress in red and sprout horns, but rather present itself within the lure of the Internet, isolation and radicalization.

We need less tribalism and more understanding. Less isolation and more integration. More diversity and less babel.

For the first time, I am concerned about the future of humanity. But the answers are within our reach. The greatest antidote to radicalization is to eliminate the leaders of organizations like Hamas—among other perpetrators of hatred, murder, assault and senseless destruction.

And then, as in ancient times, we will commit to rebuilding the world. For as much as I am pained by the misery of those caught in the middle, the world must be cleared of this plague.

As we begin to emerge from this time of profound grief and fury, we realize that there will be challenging days ahead.

For we, as a people, believe that the world is inherently good, ruined too often by those who lead and misguide others  As it was then, as it is now. Ultimately, our dedication to understanding and diversity will ensure the continuation of our species.

Until then, there is serious—potentially ugly—but noble work to be done.

Even through war, we must serve as a light to others. We must fight for peace. Peace for us. Peace for the world.

For ultimately, there is no alternative.

Shabbat shalom. Am Yisrael Chai.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Tue, November 28 2023 15 Kislev 5784