In this week’s portion, we have the story of the tower of Babylon. “And they said: ‘come let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed across the earth” (Gen. 11:4).
Nimrod, King of Babylon, led the builders of this tower. The rationale to build this tower was fear of another flood. The people reasoned that if they would build a tower high enough, they would be able to wage war with G-d, and prevent the flood from reoccurring.
Obviously, this contained a tremendous amount of faulty reasoning. Every person in the world was a descendant of Noach, as only his family survived the flood. In fact, Noach and his children were still alive, meaning there were first hand survivors of the flood! Certainly these people could have asked Noach, their grandfather or great-grandfather, what had been the causes that led to the flood. Was it simply a random occurrence that happened every so often simply to cause suffering to the inhabitants of the earth? And if they believed the story of the flood, how did Noach and his family survive – by coincidence? Certainly Noach would have informed his descendants that the only reason he survived was because G-d had instructed him to build an ark. How foolish for these people to then build a tower to rebel against the very Creator that had enabled them to be alive!
Let us look into their motives. What is the reason they built this tower? The Torah tells us: “Let us make a name for ourselves” (Gen.11:4).
The Maharal explains that when person makes a name for himself within the boundaries defined in the Torah, he is still under the umbrella of G-d, and still has responsibilities. The people building the tower wanted to be completely free. Therefore instead of aligning themselves with G-d, they aligned themselves with idolatry, even though they knew it to be not true.
It is a natural instinct for human beings to wish to make a name for themselves. But there are different ways to do it.
A person must understand his boundaries. We should desire to make a name for ourselves, but the ultimate aim of this desire should be to reveal G-d’s name in the world, thus spreading goodness. To attempt to “break free” of G-d’s influence is counterproductive, and ultimately spreads evil, as history has shown us the bitter fruits of reliance on contemporary and cultural morality.
It is a paradox to be an individual with free will, yet one who submits himself to G-d’s will. It is through this paradox that we can fulfill the purpose of the world.
The people who built the tower of Babylon were blinded by their ambition to make a name for themselves. Ultimately, except as a lesson for what not to do, they have been forgotten.
Rabbi Jay Spero is the rabbi of the Saranac Synagogue in Buffalo.