The Babel Of Towers And Language


Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 5:50 p.m.

Torah: Gen. 6:9-11:32; Numbers 28:9-15                              

Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24 (Rosh Chodesh)

Havdalah: 6:47 p.m.

God declared, “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make an ezer kenegdo (a helper/opposite for him).” God “cast a deep sleep upon man and … took one of his ribs [and] made a woman” [Gen. 2:21-22].

Why does the birth of Eve differ radically from all other creatures? Perhaps, had Eve been created from the earth like other animals, Adam would have related to her as a two-legged animal, even if she walked and talked. Her unique “birth” marks her unique role.

In an earlier verse, “God created the human being in His image; in the image of God He created him, male and female created He them” [Gen. 1:27]. “Male and female” suggests androgynous qualities. Rashi quotes a Midrashic interpretation that God originally created Adam with two “faces,” so that when God put Adam into a deep sleep it was not just to remove a rib but to separate the female side from the male side. God divided the first person into two so that each half would seek completion in the other. Had Eve not emerged from Adam’s own flesh to begin with, they could never have become one flesh again.

God announced the second basic principle of life: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh” [Gen. 2:24]. “Leave” does not mean reject but rather to develop the maturity and independence necessary to enter into a mutual relationship with one’s mate.

To become “one flesh,” a true partner with another human being, can only be achieved with someone who is really a part of yourself, someone with whom one can cleave intellectually and emotionally.

If a relationship suffers from a lack of concern and commitment, sexuality suffers as well. The Torah wants us to know that sexual relations are not merely for procreation but rather an expression of mutuality on a profound level. Therefore, in contrast to the animal kingdom, humans are not controlled by periods of heat; sexuality is ever-present. Ramban speaks of “one flesh” in allegoric terms: through a transcendent sexual act in marriage, the two become one. Rashi interprets “one flesh” to mean that in a newborn child, mother and father literally become one flesh. In a child, a part of us lives on even after we die.

The entire sequence ends with the startling statement, “And they were both naked, and they were not ashamed” [Gen. 2:25]. Given the Torah’s standards of modesty how are we to understand this description that seems to contradict traditional Jewish values?

Nakedness without shame means that two people must have the ability to face each other and reveal their souls without pretense. Frequently, we pretend to be what we’re not, putting on a front. The Hebrew word “beged” (garment) comes from the same root as “bagod,” to betray. With garments I can betray, wearing my role as I hide my true self. The Torah wants husband and wife to remove garments that conceal truth so that they are free to express fears and frustrations, unafraid to be emotional in each other’s presence without feeling the “shame of nakedness.” This is the ideal ezer kenegdo.

The first global catastrophe, the Flood, came when the world rejected the ideal relationship between man and woman. Rape, pillage and unbridled lust became the norm. Only one family on earth, Noah’s, remained righteous. With the Tower of Babel, whatever values Noah attempted to transmit to future generations were forgotten. Therefore, God decided to “confound their language, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech” [Gen. 11:7]. One universal language is replaced by 70 languages, leading to bedlam, confusion and dispersion.

The Tower of Babel represents a new stage of depravity, not sexual, but social. People wanted to build great towers, not for the sake of Heaven but for the sake of materialism, mortar and brick. As they reached greater physical heights, they forgot the value of a friend, a wife, a life partner. According to the Midrash, when a person fell off the Tower, work continued, but if a brick crashed to the ground, people mourned.

Existential loneliness engulfed the world and personal communication was forgotten. The idea of one language became a vague memory.

What exactly happened when one language became 70 is difficult to understand. Yet, with an ezer kenegdo, existential and social loneliness was kept at bay as people become one in love and in progeny.

The Tower of Babel ended an era. The social destruction left behind could only be fixed by Abraham. His message of a God of compassion who wishes to unite the world in love and morality is still waiting to be heard.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone.