The Netziv, Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Yehudah Berlin of Volozhin, offers a novel approach to the incident of the tower of Babel, which is featured towards the end of this week’s Torah portion.
He writes that the tower was to serve as a watchtower, from which guards would ensure the city’s population would remain within its walls. Herein lies the sin of the generation: the quest for a monolithic, homogenous population, where no foreign ideas or lifestyles may be legitimised or tolerated.
The builders are described as being “one people with one language for all” (11:6). They sought to design a community that would not allow the intrusion of any foreign cultural elements.
The Netziv views such a quest as a direct violation of one of God’s first commands to Noah after the deluge: “and you, be fruitful and multiply, teem on the earth and increase on it” (9:7).
Man was specifically enjoined to fill the earth, to spread to all geographic regions and establish different communities that can live harmoniously with one another.
The Netziv adds that during the period prior to the destruction of the first Temple, the Israelites formed conflicting, insular factions, each of which viewed itself as safeguarding the nation’s peace and stability, while warring against the other groups.
God feared the same result after observing the construction of the city and tower of Babel. If people form confining societies with no tolerance for others, wars and bloodshed are inevitable. He forced diversity upon mankind by dividing them according to dialect. The tower of Babel generation would have to acknowledge and appreciate the existence of differing cultures.
- Rabbi Sam Taylor serves Western Marble Arch Synagogue