And they said, "Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world." Adonai came down to look at the city and tower which man had built, and Adonaisaid, "If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another's speech." (Genesis 11:4-7)
The yellowing hydrangea and raspberry lilies were a gentle backdrop to my parents' conversation. They told me they would prefer cremation over burial when they die. A ruby-tipped leaf-boat sailed from its high place to the sweet and sopping grass, along with a cascade of twirling tiddledywinks. Ballerinas of autumn.
I spoke to my parents of the sacredness of the body, that to burn it was a violence I shuddered to accept. I spoke of natural process.
"Earth to earth," I argued.
"Ashes to ashes," they replied.
"What about your names on a tombstone?"
"It is so arrogant to need a monument. You will never visit a tombstone. We will live in your heart. Scatter us in the sea."
Words from Psalm 69:15-18 fell to me from the trees. "Let me not sink; let me be rescued from my enemies, and from the watery depths. Let the floodwaters not sweep me away; let the deep not swallow me; let the mouth of the Pit not close over me. . . . I am in distress."
The people wanted to build "a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world" (Genesis 11:4).
Commentary condemns their arrogance. In Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer (cited in New Studies in Bereshit , by Nehama Leibowitz [Jerusalem: Hemed Press], p. 103) it is written, "If a man fell down and died, no attention was paid to him, but if one brick fell down, they would sit and weep and say: Woe betide us, when will another one be hauled up in its place?" Bricks were more important to them than an individual life.
In the same text, Nehama Leibowitz continues, "Gigantic buildings, pyramids, marble monuments, impressive squares have always served as the means by which a great dictator has wished to perpetuate and aggrandize his name, likening himself to a god, overcoming through them his feelings of inferiority and through them trying to transcend the inescapable fact of his mortality."
Commentators interpret Genesis 11:1 as follows: All the earth had the same language and the same words, as totalitarianism. Looking to the preceding chapter, they see in Genesis 10:8-10 that "Cush also begot Nimrod, who was the first man of might on earth. He was a mighty hunter by the grace of Adonai . . ." and reinterpret the text to read that Nimrod was a mighty hunter of the grace of Adonai . Nimrod, they deduce, was a dictator, leading the people in war upon the heavens (based on New Studies in Bereshit , p. 92).
Midrash says one-third of the tower collapsed, one-third sunk into the ground, and one-third was a reminder of the folly of mankind ( B'reishit Rabbah 38:4). The monolith was the ultimate idolatry. Sigh.
This is the generation that follows the devastating Flood, when "all flesh that stirred on earth perished. . . . All in whose nostrils was the merest breath of life, all that was on dry land, died" (Genesis 7:21-22). A few commentaries suggest that the generation of the Flood built the tower in order to bolster the heavens, to insure they didn't fall upon them again.
Perhaps the members of that generation were building a tower to make war upon the heavens. But didn't they deserve to be angry? Perhaps they were making a name for themselves, as Nehama Leibowitz writes in New Studies in Bereshit , to "transcend the inescapable fact of [their] mortality." Perhaps they cared more for the bricks than for the individuals.
But hear me sages and commentators! These people were born of heaps of death. They knew that in an instant the individual can be swept away by the tsunami. It was no distant legend to them. They remembered it. They still tasted it in the moist air. The blood of an entire generation cried to them from the bitter and sopping ground, their parents and grandparents who had gone to feed the roses. They wanted nothing of that soil, and so they built a city. The earth was a grave, and so they built a ladder out of it.
You will save a city on account of ten innocent people, Adonai, but would you not save the whole earth for the possibility of one sinner to repent? Would you not save the whole earth for a caterpillar in whose nostrils was the merest breath, who would soon become a butterfly? You saved only one man and his family, who never spoke a word of protest on behalf of the children who knew not their right from their left. This is no tower, God! It is a lighthouse, tall as the heavens so that it cannot be drowned by Your billows and breakers, set to guide the arks that we will build ourselves next, our vain attempt to avoid your death sentence. Can you blame us?
Perhaps they were idolatrous. Perhaps they allowed ego to eclipse the majesty of God. Perhaps they wanted to carve a name for themselves into stone and erect a massive tombstone for the generation of the Flood that perished.
But understand, Mother, Father, could a child ever build a monument high enough to express their love and their loss? However long God lends you to me, my love, it is not enough. I live my life as if God loves me, and I serve and I pray and I perform mitzvot with love. Yet I am aware of the devouring clock. I am aware that, with all of the whispers of breeze and caresses of flowers, every day I near the mortal cliff, and some day it will be my God, my Creator, who will push me off. And perhaps God too will catch me, save me, and I will laugh in eternal paradise at the fears of the earthbound and their funny attempts. Dear God, I love Your world so much, I dread to disappear from it. Dear children, God placed me in this world, and by God, I want my monument.
The conversation with my parents ended. I will honor them as commanded. I love (dear God, how much I love!) just as You command. But for now, hush. "That is why it was called Babel, because there Adonai confounded the speech of the whole earth" (Genesis 11:9). What can I say? All is nonsense—a tower of babble. I avert my eyes from the faces I adore and listen for answers in the babbling brook.
By the Way
- Reading a translation is like kissing your girlfriend through a handkerchief. (Hayyim Nahman Bialik, in Moments of the Spirit, Quotations to Inspire, Inform and Involve , by Dov Peretz Elkins [Princeton, N.J.: Growth Associates Publishers, 2003], p. 74)
- All mankind is of one author and is one volume. When one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another. (John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and Death's Duel [New York: Knopf Publishing Group, Vintage Books, 1999], p. 104)
How does variety in language make the world good?
What would be different today if we all spoke one language?
Looking at John Donne's passage, consider new meanings for the phrase "the people of the Book."
How does John Donne's passage enhance your understanding of the phrase "May you be sealed in the Book of Life" when you consider your life as Godspeak?
At the time of this writing in 2003, Zoë Klein was serving as the rabbi of Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, California.