“Let us make a name for ourselves,” was the motto of the building campaign for the tower of Babel. It was several hundred years after the great biblical flood had laid waste to humanity and the people wanted something grandiose to celebrate. The ten survivors that had emerged from the ark after the flood had born children and built families that slowly grew into a sizable society. Some three hundred years later, the people felt that it was time to make their mark. Let’s build a tower and make a name for ourselves.
They wanted to leave a legacy. Something along the lines of the Egyptian Pyramids. Something by which they would be remembered. Until this point, the clans and tribes that had grown out of Noah’s family lived in one region and spoke one language. As such, they sought to build a sprawling metropolis large enough to contain their growing population anchored by a huge tower at its center. They expected their city would become a capital for the entire world and become the world’s marvel. They hoped to become the talk of the world for generations. Their legacy would live forever.
But G-d disapproved and threw the building effort into chaos. By divine fiat, G-d gave each clan a distinctive language. With one clever act, G-d altered the course of history. Instead of a single world-population based in a magnificent city and centered around a glorious tower, there would be seventy distinctive nations. Each would settle in its own country and the boundaries would be naturally drawn by the languages of the residents. Those who spoke one language would gather in one area. Those who spoke another language would gather in another area.
Going forward, each family would become a complete nation with a distinctive culture and way of life. The language barrier would prevent assimilation between nations and amalgamation of distinctive nations. Each would remain alone and independent. Before long, each would grow fiercely proud of their culture, homeland, and people, and would defend their borders with loyalty.
Thus, a world of nations emerged. Each with a distinctive culture, language, and country. Each with something unique to offer. The hegemony of all nations under one leader was forever broken. The independence of nations and cultures would be forever enshrined.
This story leaves us with an unsettled question. Why was building a sprawling capital with a central tower so wrong? Why did G-d intervene to prevent it?
All About Me
The answer is that their motivation was to make a name for themselves. These people were descendants of survivors. They were no doubt raised on stories about the flaws and the crimes of the generation that was punished by the flood. They were surely inculcated with the responsibility of rebuilding humanity.
They should have been alert to the primary cause of the flood, yet they appeared to be woefully ignorant of it. The primary crime for which the generation of the flood was punished, was theft. What leads someone to become a thief? It isn’t that thieves don’t respect boundaries. They know full well that your possessions belong to you. Their problem is that they are gripped by an intense desire for your possessions. So intense, that they can’t keep from taking it.
It all begins with a preoccupation with self. I want, I deserve, and I am entitled. Give me what I want and if you don’t, I will have no choice but to take it. I know it is yours, but you should be willing to hand it to me if I want it. If you won’t give it to me, well then, I will have the right to lift it from you.
The generation that built the tower of Babel did not set out to become a people of thieves as their ancestors were. But they erroneously set out on a value system that would lead to the erosion of boundaries. They set out to build a tower for one purpose. In their own words, they wanted to make a name for themselves. They wanted to be remembered as the founding fathers. They wanted to be distinguished. They wanted to be important.
This me-centric mentality leads to corruption and destruction. We can only live in true harmony when we are all committed to a higher cause that unifies us. When we each pull in our own direction, each consumed with a driving need to make a name for ourselves, society comes apart at the seams.
So, G-d set out to sure up their borders. By separating one clan from the other by virtue of language, G-d ensured that each would each guard its borders and cultures, way of life, etc. zealously. This might not prevent the occasional megalomaniac from attempting to invade other nations and plunder them, but since he would be one against many, the world would eventually find its balance.
History Bears Out
It turns out that history bore out this prediction. Throughout history, many nations attempted to conquer the world and become superpowers. From the ancient Assyrians to the Babylonians, from the Persians to the Greeks and Romans, all wanted to rule the world. All failed eventually because they fell to a nation or a group of nations that they were unable to conquer.
The colonial powers of Europe tried to lay claim to vast portions of the world, but because they had to compete with each other in addition to the foreign cultures, languages, and nations that they invaded, they eventually lost their empires. The Nazis attempted to take over the world, but they too lost.
Had G-d not separated the nations, it would have opened the door for a leader or clan to take over the entire world and make a name for themselves. Nothing would have stopped them because there would not have been any nations or coalitions to stand in their way. As it stands, no one has ever succeeded to make a name for themselves by conquering the world. Great conquerors have come and gone, but no one remembers them. They are relegated to the dusty pages of history books and are otherwise long forgotten.
Name for G-d
Who is remembered? Not the people who set out to make a name for themselves but the people who set out to make a contribution to society. Great philosophers are remembered for their thoughts. Great scientists are remembered for their ideas. Great discoverers are remembered for their discoveries. In our Jewish society, great Torah scholars are remembered for their lasting Torah insights.
When we set out to build a tower for others, when we set out to advance a cause of holiness that is important to G-d, when we set our ego aside and serve a cause that is greater than ourselves, we end up being remembered. It is the ultimate twist of irony, but it is a fact. When we set out to make a name for yourself, we are eventually forgotten. When we set out to make a name for others or to make a name for G-d, we are remembered.
The lesson to us, a post-Holocaust generation, is that we mustn’t build towers to make a name for those who have perished in the Holocaust. We must use their memory to build a tower for G-d. We must each feel responsible to build a Jewish generation that is devoted to G-d, that lives a life of holiness, and that seeks to make a contribution, rather than to make a name for themselves.