Dvar Torah: What the builders of the tower did wrong

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 25 October 2014

What is wrong with ambition?

Surely there can be nothing inherently wrong in aspiring to build a city, with a tower at its heart?   Surely it is OK to want to create a name for oneself?  As Ecclesiastes tells us,tov sheim mi-shemen tov – a good name is better than fragrant oil.

Must we believe the pshat – the straightforward reading of the text – that God wants only to keep the people in their place?  Saying to the angels: we must stop this, must scatter the people, because they might achieve things.  “Nothing they may propose,” God fears “will be out of their reach”.  ow would such a God react to space travel, or, for that matter, to making a paralysed man walk?  Is this God anti-ambition, anti-progress?

If not, what do the people do wrong to justify their punishment?
Yet, punished they are.  The Mishnah even proclaims that the whole generation of the dispersion have no place in the world to come.

Whenever the Sages dealt with this story, this was the question that troubled them.  Surely a crime must exist to fit the punishment they receive.  For the alternative is a capricious God, a God who seeks to subdue humanity.

The Talmud tells us that the problem was not the act but the motivation.
According to Rabbi Yirmiyah bar Elazar, the people were split into three groups – a third wished to conquer heaven to live there,  a third created the tower to worship idols, and a third to wage war on God.

Another Talmudic tradition is that they sought to reach the waters of heaven.  Why?  Later commentators tell us that they sought to empty the heavens of water so that they could behave immorally without fear of punishment, remembering the events of the flood.

Similarly, in the Haftarah that we’ll read in a moment, we find that the exercise was led by someone with dangerous motives, Nimrod.

So perhaps it was not what they did, but why.

Another approach, found in our haftarah, tells us that the issue of Babel was not that they tried to build a tower but the affect that this had on them – that in doing so they ended up compromising their humanity, no longer valuing human life, but only the exercise in which they were engaged.

All of these explanations are, in part an attempt to remove a problem in the text – to reconcile the rabbinic view of God with divine actions in the narrative.  But they also gives us something on which to reflect.
The conclusion of the rabbis is not that it is wrong to aspire, wrong to strive or be ambitious – but what defines us is our motivation, and the ethics we bring to what we do.  Many human activities are not right or wrong, good or bad, in themselves – to build wealth, make homes, grow businesses or institutions.  The question is why we do them, and how.

The failing of the generation of the Tower of Babel is not that they strive, not that they wish to create a name for themselves, but that they fundamentally misunderstand what a good name really is.  The name we make for ourselves is not just the things we have, but who we are.  Not merely the things we do, but the values we represent as we do them.  Not merely what we build, but what spurs us into action in the first place.