Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” — Genesis 11:4
The Torah portion for this week is Noach, from the name of the main character, Noah. It is from Genesis 6:9 –11:32, and the Haftorah is from Isaiah 54:1–55:5.
An interesting comment is made by the Jewish sages about the fate of the Tower of Babel, which we read about this week. They explain: “One third of the tower was burned, one third is buried, and one third still stands.”
The comment, of course, is meant to be instructive and insightful, not literal. Here’s what it means: the people who built the tower had three different motivations. The first was that by building the huge tower, people could wage war against God from whom they sought liberation. These people wanted domination in heaven and on earth. The theory was that once the tower was high enough, humanity would conquer God.
Today, this idea seems ridiculous. No one actually thinks that they can reach heaven, let alone conquer God. This is what the sages meant when they said, “one third is burned.” The idea no longer exists.
The second motivation for building the tower was that it would serve as monument for the people who were killed in the great flood. This towering monument would serve as a rallying point for the people so that they would stay united forever. While this idea still exists today, as seen in the establishment of such institutions like the United Nations, it hasn’t really worked in practice. Our world is too divided to come together around any one cause. This is what the sages meant by “one third is buried.” The idea exists, but remains deeply buried under the reality of our world today.
The third motivation behind building the tower was that it would “hold up the sky” should God forget His promise and cause another flood. The people reasoned that God might bring another torrential rain like the one that wiped out civilization in Noah’s time. So they decided to build “supports” for the sky. The underlying principle behind this plan is that human beings can outsmart God. It’s the idea that we can control our lives beyond what God may decide. It’s the belief that we can put away enough money, build great enough weapons, or hire the best doctors, so that we aren’t dependent upon God.
This final idea is alive and well today. This “third of the tower” still stands, and it is up to each of us to demolish it. God is our King and ruler. We are dependent only on Him, and should the sky ever fall down, only He can save us. Instead of building a tower, let’s build up our character. Instead of holding up the sky, we should be holding up ourselves, becoming upright, God-centered, and righteous.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President