How do you build a tower out of straws? That is the challenge that was placed before me and three other rabbinic colleagues this week at the first gathering of our Clergy Leadership Incubator in the Capital Retreat Center in Waynesboro, PA. In addition to straws, we had a random collection of tape, glue, twine, wire cleaners, craft sticks and one larger tongue depressor. In fifteen minutes, we had to ball the tallest structure possible to hold up the small booklet containing the course curriculum. It was no easy task and we were competing against four other teams of rabbis. We bent the straws, glued the craft sticks into triangles, twisted the wire cleaners, and watched the whole project fall apart on us at the last second. Two of the teams successfully built something, the others, like us, looked at their final product in despair.
Fittingly and perhaps intentionally, this week’s Torah portion, Noah, concludes with the story of the Tower of Babel, a failed attempt to build a tower to God. Things actually began well, until God stepped in and confused the languages of the participants thus preventing the building from continuing. The rabbis ask why it was that God needed to step in the first place? Their answer: the participants cared more for a falling brick than a falling human being.
Ultimately, our struggle had a much more positive outcome. The tower of straws was not the point at all. The project at the conference was only meant to challenge us to work together. And my group did that splendidly, listening and supporting one another’s efforts. We did something our human ancestors had forgotten, we put compassion above production. Without this important life lesson all of our important endeavors, will end up as a pile of recycled straws.