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The Tower of Babel, Then and Now

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The Torah tells us of a time that all the inhabitants of the world spoke one language. They settled in a valley in Babylon (Shinar) and said to one another: “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth.” God disapproves of their plan, mixes up their languages so that they cannot understand one another, and scatters them upon the face of the earth.

The strange thing about this narrative is that the text does not state what exactly God disapproves of. The people, seemingly, wanted to prevent their scattering and create a unified existence. Is that not a noble aim? Rashi quotes the Midrash that further clarifies their intentions. They said, “Once every 1656 years the heavens disintegrate just like they did at the time of the great flood, let us support the heavens.” This Midrash is also perplexing. Were they scientifically out of touch to such a degree that they considered supporting the heavens to prevent a flood?

The Telzer Rov, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Bloch, sheds light on this mystifying narrative. Feelings of insecurity and vulnerability have plagued mankind from time immemorial. Natural disasters, sickness, disease, viruses, and plagues are just some of the challenges to our sense of security and stability. At that time in history, humankind was feeling particularly vulnerable, with the flood that wiped out Earth’s inhabitants still fresh in their minds. Hence, they devised a rational plan to overcome natural threats. They realized that if they separated from one another, they would be more vulnerable. Whereas, if they ensured unity and pooled together all of their scientific knowledge and resources, then they could overcome any natural threat. This is what the Midrash is conveying to us. They wanted to seek a scientific understanding of weather patterns and natural phenomenon and, in doing so, prevent another catastrophic flood.

God disapproved of their endeavor, because they viewed earthly occurrences as completely natural and out of God’s control. They viewed the flood as a natural phenomenon, rather than a divine consequence of immoral human conduct. We all want security, and we are even commanded to use all the natural means at our disposal to protect ourselves from illness and natural disasters. Humans who have solved every natural dilemma and feel perfectly secure without divine assistance, will forget the Master Conductor behind nature. God will, therefore, never allow human beings to be completely secure. God’s will is that we respond to our vulnerability by turning to Him in prayer and, simultaneously, using all available natural means to protect ourselves.

Perhaps, as mankind made technological and scientific advancements, we had begun to feel perfectly secure and confident that we could overcome every natural threat. Perhaps we had begun to forget that there is a Master Conductor of the universe. Perhaps we had slipped into the very same trap as the generation of the Tower of Babel? If so, let COVID-19 be a wakeup call for us that God, in His great kindness, will never allow human beings to feel completely secure. Let us know that we are all vulnerable and let us turn to God alone for ultimate safety, security, and protection.