In an attempt to define what motivates man, Freud proposed that it is “will to pleasure” and Adler opined that it is “will to power”. So fundamental are these drives to the human condition that the Bible highlights them in two seminal narratives: “The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil” and “The Tower of Babel”.
In the Tree narrative, man is placed in the Garden of Eden and, other than being told to “work and keep it”, is given one command: “Eat not from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” Eve, seduced by the serpent, decides to eat from the tree because “it was a delight to the eyes” – thus performing an act clearly informed by the will to pleasure.
The Tower narrative, on the other hand, tells the story of the will to power. The people of the time gather together and say, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (11:4). Seforno explains that their plan was to rule the world by making a colossal tower which would gain such colossal fame that “the one who rules that city would rule all of humanity” (ibid.).
Tellingly, both pleasure and power are really expressions of the aesthetic. Pleasure, with its drive to indulge the senses, is clearly a category of the aesthetic. Similarly, explains Rav Soloveitchik, “power is an aesthetic category”; for, when man is driven by the aesthetic, he sees the whole world as his plate – he wishes to indulge himself to the point that he has dominion over all that is the object of his desires (Emergence, p.124).
And it is this insatiable drive of the aesthetic that lies at the root of all sin: “What caused man’s fall is his giving preference to the sensuous, delightful, and pleasing over the true, at both the intellectual and ethical levels” (Soloveitchik). But what, we may ask, does it look like when the aesthetic is preferred to the ethical and the intellectual? The narratives of the Tree and the Tower respond in vivid color.
We begin with the story of the Tree which depicts the conflict between aesthetic desire and ethical will. In such a dilemma, what is at stake is not simply the indulgence of the senses, but the very assumption of moral authority from God Himself: “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:22). By eating of the Tree man had become like God defining good and evil. As such, in giving preference to the aesthetic over the ethical one has made oneself a “god” – in a word: idol-worship (Zohar, Genesis 27b).
Now, the interaction between aesthetic and intellectual cannot be described in the same terms as that of the aesthetic and the ethical, for though people do stupid things for the sake of enjoyment – such is the sin of frivolity and here we talk of sin akin to idol worship. The story of the Tower, I propose, is the story of the intellect in service of the aesthetic.
When humanity gathered in Babel, they made two statements:
- Come, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly.
- Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
Rashi explains that the word “come” (hava) indicates a new enterprise, such that two enterprises were undertaken here. The first, that of fabricating bricks where previously only stones were used, was intellectual – they developed technology. There is nothing sinful in the development of technology, of science or of any other intellectual pursuit; on the contrary, such is the fulfillment of God’s blessing to man to “conquer” the earth (1:28). The second enterprise, however, that of applying technology, was not so innocuous.
When man applies his intellect to “conquer” the earth, he demonstrates that not only does he understand the world but that he can harness it and dominate it. If he does so in the name of God, he has fulfilled creation. If he does so to “make a name” for himself, then he has placed his intellect in the service of the aesthetic and, as such, has failed creation. In the case of the Tower, the intellect was used to establish independence from God, as they said: “we want neither Him nor His dominion” (Gen. R. 38:7). This, explains the Midrash, is idol-worship. Accordingly, God “comes down” to see what “the children of Adam” are up to – for God is concerned that man succeeds in his task of completing creation.
In both the case of the Tree and the Tower, man had reached a condition that, without divine intervention, he would have never been able to exit:
- The Lord God said: Behold, man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; Now, he might put forth his hand and take also from the Tree of Life, and eat from it and live forever. So the Lord God sent him away from Gan Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. (3:22-23)
- God said: Behold, they are a single nation with one language for all, and this is what they have begun to do. Now nothing will be withheld from them in all that they planned to do… So God dispersed them from there over the entire world… (11:6-8)
In the case of the Tree, had man lived forever, he would have never realized that subjectively defining good and evil is unethical, he would have never come to seek heavenly guidance on ethical issues. Mortality forces man to realize that he is not a god himself (Rashi, 3:22) and that only by following the divine code of ethics can he hope for a world free of violence (Hirsch, 3:24).
In the case of the Tower, had the people remained united, they would have never come to realize the folly of their attempt to assert control over the world in spite of God. For, though unity is a great ideal, when it brooks no diversity, as in Babel where the people were “of one language and one idea”, it is the death knell of innovation. New ideas are formed through unity in diversity (e.g., witness R. Yohanan and Resh Lakish, Pes 84b).
And so God disperses the people so that “they ceased to build the city”. Interestingly, the text makes no mention of the tower. The reason, I suggest, is that the tower was merely the symbol of their sin whereas the city was the base for it. The city, as a unified base of diverse people, is to allow the free flow of ideas to inspire innovation. Without this, the city has failed.
God then “confounds their languages” and “scatters them abroad” to engender new cities, new nations. Within each nation and between each nation new ideas will develop and thus there is hope for innovation, there is hope that man will recognize God. To insure that this hope is realized, God chose one nation to serve as the loyal opposition to the nations of the world, to provide the voice of critique that man is not a god, that aesthetic must be placed at the service of ethic and intellect, and not the other way around.
Abraham – father of all the nations (av hamon goyim) – was chosen for the task. His story, appropriately, follows on the heels of the dispersal of the people of Babel. But why Abraham? Returning to what motivates man, Viktor Frankl explains that it is neither the will to pleasure nor the will to power but rather the will to meaning that provides the primary motivation. Abraham was an individual who, though growing up amongst idolaters of pleasure and power, nevertheless, pursued the truth. Abraham was chosen by God because he was able to break the idols of pleasure and power and declare: there is truth, there is God, there is purpose.
 This is not necessarily what the Rav had in mind but, I suggest, is a legitimate extension of his seminal thought.