November 20, 2018 |

Parashah Noach and Media Monopoly

The story of the Tower of Babel, on its surface, is disturbingly anti-Western. Bold men aspire to the heavens, G-d takes fright and/or offense at the invasion (“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!), and punishes the uppity mortals, confusing their tongues and scattering them to the winds.
Really? Is HaShem merely an insecure despot?

No, quite the opposite. Let's look a little closer. The key to this story, I think, is in the very first sentence:
"Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words."

Torah doesn't rephrase casually. Why both "language" and "words"? Those don't sound similar in Hebrew, it's not a natural pairing like "dust and ashes," (afar v'efer). No, we must imagine that every person alive literally says the same words. The next sentence confirms this: "They said to one another, 'Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard.'"

Why are these strange people chanting to each other in a parody of the angelic hosannah? Conversation involves different words spoken by different people. When literally everybody says exactly the same thing, something's wrong. "Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words." When you repeat it and imagine it, it sends a chill down your spine. This isn't a bunch of bold pioneers. It's an absolute despot and his slaves/subjects--a topic to which Tanakh will return again and again. In this one sentence, Torah gives us the essence of Orwell's 1984.

What does this despot do with his power? Cure poverty forever, reinvent metallurgy, save lives? Hardly. "And then 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.'”

The despot wants to immortalize himself, or at least his family's power. His subjects must build a tower with his name on it. Maybe literally. Long after his death, the Tower will stand, with his family name emblazoned forth, to terrify anyone who might even think of rebelling. His subjects will not scatter, they shall stay near the Tower, in constant terror of its master's might.

Well, no wonder HaShem is upset! Indeed, He's probably seen this before. The antediluvian world probably all had the same language, and that didn't work out well at all. But HaShem has seen that man's evil thoughts are "from his youth," from poor upbringing. HaShem does not want another flood, He wants to improve man's upbringing. And He puts His finger on the weak spot:
"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." Put another way, 'If people speaking the same language leads to this at the start, tyranny will have no limits.' And so, HaShem does exactly what the despot fears: He disperses the people, and, just to make sure, He confounds their language so that no one message can ever enslave everyone again. There will always be a rival kingdom, always a place for dissenters to flee to.

The next parashah, of course, is about the greatest of all dissenters, Abram, and is named for HaShem's first command to him: "Lech Lecha" -- "Go, get out!" Which would not have been possible, if not for the division of humanity imposed by HaShem.

The title of this d'var no doubt makes sense by now. HaShem does not favor slavish unity of thought. People should not all think the same or speak the same. To ensure this, we must have divided media. Not just one (cell) Tower (provider) beaming the same content to all minds.

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Manny Jacobowitz

Joined: December 12, 2010

Manny and his two kids are members of Congregation Beth Shalom. He approaches Torah as an actor and lawyer, looking for character motivation.

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