The stories within the earliest chapters of Bereshit are best approached by establishing what question is being addressed. The story of the Tower of Babel enables us to ask why is the world so divided – and whether different languages are a cause, or a symptom, of that division?
When you converse with someone who doesn’t speak your language, you speak slowly, ensuring they are following. You may exaggerate – gesticulate and use facial expressions.
Now think about the conversations we have with friends or family: often rushed, sentences unfinished and many assumptions made. There’s so much scope for misunderstanding although the language is shared.
Sloppiness is part of our life. We speak to so many people, but do we think about how our words may be interpreted? Perhaps more translation is applied by the person who hears our innocent remark as snide, than by the foreigner you helped by conveying the message clearly and giving them the time they deserve.
The Babel story helps us appreciate the unintended consequences of language, namely the negative associations of sloppy communication.
Never has there been a more modern need for such an ancient story.
We live in an age where communication has never been so quick and so easy and yet how often is it used to harm, to communicate falsehoods and spread messages of hate?
What if we spoke as if we were talking to someone who didn’t share our language? What if we needed to be clear and concise, so no one was left in any doubt?
Babel isn’t God’s desire for division, but a warning about the consequences of not taking the time to say what we mean. Slow down.
On many levels, we don’t speak the same language. Don’t leave anything to translation if you really want to make sure you are understood.
- Rabbi Miriam Berger serves Finchley Reform Synagogue
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