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Noah 5764-2003

“Using Technology in the Service of the A-lmighty”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Noah, we read the well known story of the Tower of Babel.

The Torah (Genesis 11) relates that after the great flood all people were united and spoke one common language. When the people migrated East, they found a valley in the land of Shin’ar and settled there. They said one to another (Genesis, 11:4): “Hah’vah niv’neh lah’noo eer ooh’mig’dal, v’ro’shoh va’shah’ma’yim, v’nah’ah’seh lah’noo shaym,” Come let us build a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves. Scripture tells us that the A-lmighty sees the city and tower that the people have built and (for reasons we will learn later) is not happy. He decides to confound the peoples’ language and spread them abroad over the face of the earth. Because of the inability to communicate, all building comes to an abrupt halt. The location of the tower is called “Bavel” (Babylon), because there G-d confounded, “balal,” the language of the people.

Many commentators maintain that the purpose of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel is to explain the existence of the many different nations and the many different languages. After all, if all mankind is descended from the family of Adam, there should be only a single nation and one united language.

The rabbis also note that Genesis 11 is preceded in the Torah by chapter 10, where scripture lists the names of the 70 nations that are descended from Noah and his sons. The commentators dwell on the fact that, with a single exception, the names of the 70 descendants are merely listed, without any additional information added. However, in Genesis 10:8-9 where the birth of Nimrod is recorded, scripture notes that Nimrod was “a mighty man” on the earth and “a mighty hunter” before the Lord.

The rabbis seek to connect this unexpected description of Nimrod to the “rebellion” of the generation of the Tower of Babel. In fact, they suggest that Nimrod was the leading force behind the rebellion.

The Abarbanel, cited by Nehama Leibowitz in her Studies in Bereshit [Genesis], points out that until the birth of Nimrod all humans were considered equal, but Nimrod became mighty and began to lord over his contemporaries. With his wily actions he trapped people, resorting to subterfuge to gain ascendancy over the others. He became a mighty hunter and battled many wild and ferocious beasts, until all the people stood in awe of Nimrod, and thus were themselves vanquished.

Nimrod built towers and highly fortified cities which he designed in order to immortalize himself and enhance his rule over the entire country. He abolished the notion of human equality that had existed until that time, and introduced the practice of the strong oppressing the weak. In effect, Nimrod, the first monarch, introduced to the world the notion of tyranny.

What actually was the sin of the builders of the Tower of Babel? The Talmud (Sanhedrin 109a) states that the generation of the Tower of Babel was divided into three groups: One group desired to build a tower to simply serve as a residence. A second group wanted to use the tower for the worship of idols. A third group sought to build a tower in order to do battle with G-d. According to various traditions the Tower project was so immense that 600,000 people labored for 43 years to build it. The Midrash describes the tower as being so high that it took a year to carry the bricks from the ground floor to the top.

In effect, the story of the Tower of Babel is the story of technology running amok. The valley of Shin’ar contained no rocks or stones. Consequently the people invented a way of making bricks from the clay, glazing them in a fiery kiln, thus creating a super-strong building material that enabled the people to build to heretofore unimaginable heights. A second technological development, the discovery of mortar, enabled the people to build towers that were more secure than before and even higher. Insightfully, the rabbis of the Midrash say that during the building process, if a person fell off the tower his death was ignored, but if a brick fell and was smashed, the people would stop to mourn.

Surely, Judaism does not look upon human wisdom or the skills, resources and power of mortals as something evil. To the contrary, they are all regarded as gifts of G-d, to be used in the service of G-d. The sin of the people of the Tower of Babel was not the manufacture of the bricks, but the fact that they regarded the bricks as an end in itself.

This is the powerful message of the story of the Tower of Babel. Let us be certain to utilize our wisdom, our ingenuity and our creativity to advance the service of G-d, so that the tower that we build will truly reach up to heaven and last forever. For such a tower will surely represent an edifice whose purpose is to enhance the glory of G-d.

May you be blessed.