Next month marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin.
The Netziv, has a unique understanding of the Tower of Babel story, as described in Parshat Noach. It is a lesson critically important for our world to hear, and particularly within the Jewish community.
The mistake made by the builders of Migdal Bavel is expressed in the very first pasuk of the narrative (11:1):
|Now the entire earth was of one language and uniform words.||אוַיְהִי כָל הָאָרֶץ שָׂפָה אֶחָת וּדְבָרִים אֲחָדִים:|
The Netziv sees within this uniform language and common purpose a problem in and of itself. As the Netziv puts it, the problem with the builders of Migdal Bavel was not the specifics of what they said: (such as blasphemy or ego or heresy as Rashi suggests). Rather the problem was that at Migdal Bavel, there was only one voice, a singular way to think and to express oneself. This, explains the Netziv is dangerous, even sinful.
The people at Migdal Bavel feared diversity. After the Flood God’s plan entailed diversity: different families/ nations with different languages living in their own lands. It is through diversity that God’s plan is able to come to fruition: ie people serving God in different ways and people learning from one another while maintaining their individuality and uniqueness.
Though Rashi doesn’t quote it in his commentary, there is one Midrash that does support the Netziv’s view. “Rabbi Eliezer said,”devarim achadim” is related to the word chadim– ie sharp words.” For the people at Migdal Bavel spoke sharply against God- and against Avraham. We have explained how and why they spoke out against God, but what did Avraham do to them? According to this Midrash they mocked Avraham, calling him “an old mule”- ie sterile and without a future. Why did they expresse such vehemence against Avraham, who at this time was 48 years old and had not even begun his divinely mandated journey?
The people of Migdal Bavel rejected and mocked Avraham because he stood for three ideas which they despised. And it is this attitude that highlights the problem of “one language, one purpose.”
Avraham stood for unity, not uniformity. Avraham preaches a message of monotheism to all who would listen, and even to those who were just interested in his hospitality. Yet Avraham’s goal was not to make everyone exactly like him. In fact, when Avraham begins his journey next week he leaves with Hanefesh Asher Asu B’Charan- those whom he had influenced while in Charan. And that’s the last time we hear of them. They went on to live their lives very different than Avraham- there was no uniformity. But Avraham had accomplished his goal- a unity of disparate people that all acknowledge and respect Hashem.
Avraham celebrated commonality. Not conformity. Hashem promises Avraham that he will be an Av Hamon Goyim– the father of a multitude of nations- NOT the father of one huge single nation. He had two sons that he loved even though they were quite different. He is referred to as the Av Hamon Goyim. He is promised that through him all the families of the land will be blessed- they will maintain their uniqueness yet identify with one land, just like it was Avraham’s hope that they would identify with one God.
Avraham valued belonging, but he was not interested in necessarily “fitting in”. He feels tremendous responsibility towards all other human beings; that’s why he prays so hard for Sedom, that’s why he fights so hard on behalf of the 5 kings. He belongs to the human race and takes that role seriously and with responsibility. Yet Avraham remains HaIvri– the other, different and unlike anyone else in his generation. He feels no need to succumb to peer pressure, even as he takes the responsibility of belonging very seriously.
The lesson of Migdal Bavel are lessons that we need to keep in mind as a Jewish community. Diversity is a natural part of Hashem’s world order; we should embrace it and never try to fight against it. Our goal should be unity – unity of goals, unity of values – But not uniformity. We strive to find common ground but never demand conformity. We must learn to appreciate the value of belonging to a group, while not requiring that one has to “fit in all ways” in order to belong.
A society/community built upon these values is not a Tower of Babel, destined to be dismantled, but a shining example of what God hopes from us and for us.