Babeling: Noach 2015

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Questions to Start: How often do you dream? Are the dreams you have as adults different than those you’ve had since childhood? Have you regretted giving up on any of your dreams?
The story of the Tower of Babel is a tale of dreamers who see their hopes dashed in quick and brutal fashion. It’s worthwhile to ask whether their dream had merit — and whether it still lives on.

Text: “And they said, ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.’ Adonai came down to look at the city and tower that humanity had built, and Adonai said, ‘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. Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:4-7)

Commentary #1: “Only when God is God can man be man. That means keeping heaven and earth distinct, organising the latter only under the conscious sovereignty of the former. Without this there is little to prevent human beings from sacrificing the many for the sake of the few, or the few for the sake of the many. Only a respect for the dignity of creation stops human beings [from] destroying themselves. Humility in the presence of divine order is our last, best safeguard against mankind arrogating to itself power without restraint, might without right. Babel was the first civilization, but sadly not the last, to begin with a dream of utopia and end in a nightmare of hell. A world of tov, good, is a world of havdalah, boundaries and limits.” — Jonathan Sacks, Covenant & Conversation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible

Commentary #2: “I was weeping on the ground and a man walked by. “We’re through,” I said. ‘It’s over!’ Babies were crying in the distance. Someone threw a handful of pebbles at the sky. The man sat on a rock next to me. He was wearing a beret and smoking a cigarette. ‘Do you speak English?’ I asked, even though that the first time I’d ever called it English. He shook his head. ‘Je ne comprends pas,’ he shrugged. He finished his cigarette and then lightly twisted it under his shoe. Then he reached into his pocket and unscrolled a parchment. He read it quietly for a while. Then handed it to me. I could not read a word of it, but mostly it was just a picture of a road. A long road into an open horizon, which matched the view I saw when I looked up. Everyone, a little alone, moving forward with suitcases and bags. Kicking the dirt. Crying. Sometimes reaching out a hand. Hugging. Beyond, the shimmer land, vast and wide and untapped.” — Aimee Bender, from Unscrolled, Roger Bennett, editor

Commentary #3: “In the many literary versions of the Tower of Babel legend, from its biblical beginning until its present configuration, man’s irrepressible, boundless, upward striving finds expression. Though this striving is often condemned as arrogance and defiance of the established order, it also mirrors the greatness of the human species, a species that is not content to stay within the bounds set for it by God or fate or the genetic code but rather that wills to build towers with spires reaching up to dizzy heights, even to heaven itself. Such towers may topple and fall, as did the first Tower of Babel, but upon the ruins new towers will be built again and again as sublime monuments of man’s indomitable spirit.” — Sol Liptzin, Biblical Themes in World Literature

Follow-Up Questions: While Liptzin speaks of the human need to continue dreaming, Bender focuses on the despair of a dream deferred. And, perhaps in a more moderate text, Rabbi Sacks acknowledges the good intentions of dreaming — even dreams that are not feasible or appropriate.

Is the story of the Tower of Babel a reminder of the limitations of humankind? Or does the story have a stubborn optimism that lies beneath the surface? At one point is ambition synonymous with egomania? Are the builders of Babel guilty of such egomania? Is a little bit of arrogance when we dream necessary to achieve great things?
Emanu-El Happenings: I wish to encourage all of you to be a part of a special program next Sunday, October 25th. We will observe the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the pivotal declarations by the Catholic Church that helped create an era of cooperation between Catholics and Jews. We will gather beginning at 1:30PM at KKBE and will hear from, among others, our very own Dr. Michael Kogan, who will speak about the significance of this decision.

The Big Inning at the End: My Cubs are four games away from their first World Series since 1945. I can’t say much more, for fear of jinxing it.

Shabbat Shalom!