A well-known midrash from Parashat Noach is that the true sin of the Tower of Babel was that bricks were more important than human beings”
Rabbi Phineas said: There were no stones there where-with to build the city and the tower. What did they do? They baked bricks and burnt them like a builder (would do), until they built it seven mils high, and it had ascents on its east and west. (The laborers) who took up the bricks went up on the eastern (ascent), and those who descended went down on the western (descent). If a man fell and died they paid no heed to him, but if a brick fell they || sat down and wept, and said: Woe is us! when will another one come in its stead? (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 24)
It is hard to know how tall seven mils was. If a mil was 2000 cubits, and a cubit was 45.7 centimeters, then the tower was over 6 kilometers high, according to Phineas. It was so tall that it took a year to bring a brick to the top (Midrash HaGadol11:3)
The Biblical text doesn’t explain exactly what the problem is with the tower. The builders say they want to make a name for themselves, and avoid be scattered. God is clearly upset, and expresses the concern that if they aren’t stopped, “nothing that they propose to do will be out of their reach.” (Genesis 11:6). It is therefore understandable that many midrashim and commentators see the tower as an attempt to storm heaven and challenge God’s power. Others see it as a form of idolatry, or a way of ruling over the world.
In the midrashic way of thinking, it is possible to put on one page contradictory explanations because each on teaches something true. In this case, however, these different explanations may actually be complimentary. We learned just last week that God created the human being in God’s Image. To deny the value of the human being by valuing bricks more or by attempting to rule over others is to deny God’s Presence in the world. To try to overpower God is to say that human society is superior to God, clearly another form of idolatry.
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch combines these explanations in the following way:
“It all comes down to what is meant by “We shall make for ourselves a name.” (Genesis 11:4). … Who said “We shall make for ourselves a name?” All of humanity that existed at the time. But if all of humanity says “We shall make for ourselves a name, then this can be referring to only two possible targets: Against God, Who is above humanity; and against the individual. The individual. The human collective is below or subordinate to because humanity in its totality is not equal to the individual. …They realized the great power of the public. If everybody will cooperate and work together, they can overcome and rule over nature. They wanted to build an edifice that would be a reminder for all time of the power of the collective and its superiority to the individual. But, God established God’s World over the collective…. The individual is mortal and has limited abilities, and only of the collective is it said, “The collective doesn’t die and isn’t poor (Talmud Tractate Temurah 15). Great and eternal things can only come about through collective effort.
The truth is that the collective completes the individual, but only if the collective shares the attitude towards God of the individual.
However, this is the danger. The individual can come to the conclusion that s/he has limited abilities, but not the collective. The collective is truly powerful, and can come to see itself as the ultimate goal, as if the individual doesn’t have any value other than through the collective. As if the role of the collective isn’t to complete the individual, but rather the individual is nullified by the collective.
If the individual is required to serve the collective, but not God; if the collective presents itself as the goal, rather than the means, the moral future of humanity is doomed.
Hirsch doesn’t deny the value of the collective power of society, and he isn’t espousing “rugged individualism that denies the value of the individual contributing to collective efforts. Hirsch is concerned when the collective puts itself above both God and the individual human being, and permits itself to trample the individual in the name of the “greater good.” That is the society that is concerned more about a brick than a human being because it sees itself as more important than the individual human being. It denies God in the human being, and seeks to overpower God in the heavens.
And, overpower God in the world. God is immanent in all existence, and not confined to the heavens. Hirsch sees that ruling over nature is one of the goals of the collective gone wild. If God is present in all existence, then attempting to rule over nature is also a form of idolatry. While God did say last week that humanity is to rule over the world, we are also to be caretakers. After the flood God promises never to destroy the world again, but many have commented that God doesn’t promise that we won’t. And let us not forget that the flood came about because the world was filled with violence of human beings against each other. (Genesis 6:11)
Taken together, our Torah portion teaches that God’s Desire for us is one in which the collective honors God’s Presence in human beings and uses its power in the world to care for the earth. When society treats every human being decently, and collectively enhances the ability of individuals both to care for each other and our world, it empowers the individual to do God’s Will.