The world's first "skyscraper" was built after the great Flood. All of humanity, unified by a single language, decided to build "a tower that reaches the sky" (Genesis 11:4), known today as the Tower of Babel. I've always taken this story as an act of defiance and hubris; God reacted by dispersing the people and confusing their speech.
A midrash depicts the height of the people's arrogance: " 'Come,' they said, 'let us make a tower, place an image on its top, and put a sword in its hand, and it will seem that it is waging war against [God]' " (B'reishit Rabbah 38:6). If there was any ambiguity in the Torah, the midrash has removed it. These people were asking for God's retaliation!
Hubris wasn't their only transgression. Careful readers will note that the "Babel builders" (as one of my bar mitzvah students likes to call them) disobeyed a direct command of God from earlier in the parashah. After the Flood, God blessed Noah1 and commanded him and his offspring: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth" (Genesis 9:1). Rather than filling the earth, these people settled in one valley. Rather than being fruitful, they devoted themselves single-mindedly to a self-aggrandizing construction project.
Of course, God doesn't simply hate buildings, even grand ones. The Israelites in the desert built the Tabernacle in painstaking detail; King Solomon oversaw the Temple's elaborate construction in Jerusalem. But certain works of human hands elicit God's wrath, the Tower of Babel and the Golden Calf among them. Divine approbation of human building hinges on intention. It's not the technology itself, but how we use it that determines God's response.
The trouble begins when we let technology—the works of our hands—undermine our values and eclipse our humanity. According to midrash, the Babel builders lost their respect for human life in their fervor to scrape the sky:
The builders brought bricks up on one side and came down on the other. If a man fell down and died, no heed was given to him. But when a brick fell down, they stopped work and wept, saying, "Woe unto us! When will another be brought up in its stead?" (Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer 24)
The builders became so obsessed with their technology that a wasted brick mattered more to them than a human casualty. More than merely misguided, they were morally backward.
We tend to tell ourselves that we, unlike the Babel builders, would never let our love of technology cloud our moral compass. But we are wrong. Take smartphones, for instance. According to one study, texting and driving is now a leading cause of death among teenagers—causing more deaths than those resulting from drinking and driving. The thrill of pinging a friend or posting on Facebook outweighs the very real risk of causing a fatal crash. We are not so unlike the Babel builders, after all.
There are less dire ways, too, that we let technology lead us astray. At my son's last day of daycare last spring, the graduating preschool kids celebrated by singing songs for their parents. All the parents watched the event through their smartphones, choosing a screen over the actual firsthand experience of their child's milestone. On subways and sidewalks, in cafes and conversations, people bury their faces in a device. There is less time to relate and interact, not to mention time to be alone with one's thoughts and no other distractions.
Even having said all this, I'm not a Luddite. I like my iPhone as much as the next person (maybe more). But it all comes back to the questions of intention and balance. Technology is supposed to be our tool, not our ruler. We ought to leverage it to connect in ways we otherwise couldn't, to teach and to innovative more efficiently, and to solve global problems like poverty and disease. We are supposed to use technology to enhance human life, not let our addiction to it pull us away from what matters most. God commanded the Israelites to build the Tabernacle as an antidote to the Golden Calf, because the collective effort with an elevated purpose would reorient them to God's Presence in their community. God allowed King Solomon to build the Temple because Solomon was a seeker of peace whose handiwork would manifest God's grandeur in the world.
In the 2002 film, The Emperor's Club, Kevin Kline plays a teacher at a private school. On his classroom wall sits an ancient inscription:
"I am Shutruk Nahunte, King of Anshand and Sussa, Sovereign of the land of Elam. I destroyed Sippar, took the stele of Niran-Sin, and brought it back to Elam, where I erected it as an offering to my god. Shutruk Nahunte—1158 B.C." (The Emporer's Club)
The teacher reminds his students that you won't find Shutruk Nahunte in history books. He has been all but forgotten, despite his victories and monuments. The teacher explains the lesson to his class:
"Great ambition and conquest without contribution is without significance. What will your contribution be? How will history remember you?" (The Emporer's Club)
So what will we build? A monument to ourselves, or to something transcendent and eternal? Let us use the works of our hands to elevate the spirit and not the ego. Let us remember that our greatness depends on our goodness. Otherwise, what will we leave behind but a ruined city and a decaying tower?
Bricks and mortar crumble, and turn to dust. The Torah's timeless wisdom calls us to construct a legacy of virtue and contribution that will stand the test of time.
1. The transliteration Noach is used for the portion name, while the transliteration, Noah is used for the person's name in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Ed., W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed. (NY: URJ Press, 2005), pp. 57–83
Rabbi David Segal is the spiritual leader of the Aspen Jewish Congregation in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. He was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship.