These days it’s hard to remember the idea of a ‘get together’. We’re becoming accustomed to ‘social distancing’, which isn’t exactly sociable. The most common line I find myself telling friend and family is, ‘Hope to see you in person, soon.’ Thank God for ZOOM! I can’t begin to fathom the misery of previous pandemics, when each family unit was really isolated. In this environment, it’s a bit weird to discuss the ‘social closeness’ of DOR HAFLAGA, the ‘generation of the dispersal’. So, obviously, we will.
In this week’s Torah reading we read about the events occurring a handful of generations after the MABUL, the ‘flood’ or, perhaps, more correctly the ‘cataclysm’. We’re told, ‘Now the whole earth had one language and few words (‘one set of words’, Alter; ‘uniform words’, Kaplan, Breishit 11:1).’ What does that last phrase denote? Rashi explains that the issue wasn’t linguistic. They shared the same ideas. The Ibn Ezra is more literal. They had no difficulty understanding each other, because there were so few expressions, no specialized jargon. Scholar and workman understood each other clearly.
The Ibn Ezra’s interpretation is remarkable enough. Rashi, on the other hand, seems like he’s describing another world and an alien species. The idea of everyone being in agreement sounds absolutely miraculous, on the magnitude of splitting the Sea. Neither of my two homelands can agree on very much. Discord is the flavor of the year (decade?).
Here’s the rub: What was wrong with having everyone on the same page? Our tradition loves ACHDUT (unity). How marvelous and splendid when brethren dwell together in harmony (Tehillim 133:1). Or King David’s description of the power of Jerusalem: the city which joins its inhabitants together (123:3). So, why did the unity of that group, upon closer examination (God descended to see…; verse 5), bother the Creator so much?
There are, of course, many opinions on this topic. The Midrash claims that they wanted to make war on God. Others opine that they thwarted God’s intent for humanity to inhabit the whole planet (‘be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth’, 1:28). In this latter approach, it was less a punishment than a policy enforcement.
This year I’ve been moved by the opinion of the Sfat Emet, second Gerer Rebbe. He suggests that there is another text which can help us analyze the problem. The Rebbe quotes from the valedictory Song of Moshe (Ha’Azinu): Remember the days so long ago…When the Most High allotted portions to the nations, during the dispersion of the children of Adam. The borders of the nations were set according to the number of Yisrael’s children…for Ya’aov is God’s portion (Dvarim 32:7-8).
The ‘dispersion of the children of Adam’ is, of course, our story of the Tower, and the ‘number of Yisrael’s children’ refers to the 70 souls who went down to Egypt. Our tradition also counts the nations of the world as 70, which fits the genealogy of Noach listed in our parsha. But what does this teach about the unity in our story?
The Rebbe describes how there are positive cohesive groups and negative ones. This position is described in the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avot: Every gathering that is for the sake of Heaven, will endure; that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not long endure. The Rebbe posits that only Jews can have L’SHEM SHAMAYIM gatherings. Although that may be generally true, I’m not sure Zecharia would agree as an absolute rule. That prophet of the Return to Tziyon movingly describes Gentiles assembling to celebrate Sukkot in Yerushalyim. On the other hand, the Rebbe correctly excludes the generation of the dispersal, DOR HAFLAGA from consideration as a gathering L’SHEM SHAMAYIM.
That immense assemblage of humanity declared unequivocally that they gathered to ‘make a name (‘reputation’?) for ourselves (verse 4)’. This totally disappointed God, who said, ‘They’re one people and one language, and this is what they do! (verse 6).’ It’s as if the Almighty is in shock. These people have so much going for them and all they can aspire to is fame.
Fame and honor should be byproducts of success in worthy endeavors, like discovery or science or literature or peace. Never should renown be the purpose. When we achieve unity, we must utilize that boon for Divine purposes not personal aggrandizement.
These seven verses don’t teach us much about the history or culture of that moment in time, but we can learn an immense amount about human nature and its limitations, but we can also gain insight into our potential. We can accomplish great things when we work together, if our goals are worthy, if our aspirations are admirable, if our purpose is Godly.