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Building Towers

Parashat Noach 5778

One can learn a lot about his surroundings from the graffiti he encounters. When I was living in Jerusalem as a rabbinical student, eagerly and earnestly learning to speak modern Hebrew, I remember walking down Emek Refayim one day and seeing the words “Welcome Americans. Speak Hebrew,” stenciled with spray paint across the side of a trash can. It was written in English.

One can successfully live in Jerusalem today, and never learn to speak Hebrew. Not so in all parts of Israel, but one can get around the entire country without any real Hebrew abilities. That is, if you speak English. In the service industry, English has become a standard second language. When Liz and I were in Israel in last year, restaurant hosts would hear our American accents, go to give us English menus, and were surprised when we were Americans who actually happened to speak Hebrew. One evening, I got into an argument with a cab driver over some hot topic from that week’s news. When we came to the end of the ride, the cab driver said thank you for the conversation. It occurred to me that he took it for granted that we were fighting it out in Modern Hebrew.

I felt welcome as an American, speaking Hebrew.

That graffiti is critiquing a situation that many encounter in Jerusalem. With so much tourism, with there needing to be one language with which to communicate, and with English being most people’s default setting when in a foreign country, for those of us native born English speakers, how easy it is to rest on that, and to not attempt to speak the language of the land. And the graffiti artist who put that up—what is he or she really upset about?

The Modern State of Israel shepherded and celebrated a language that for so long had been reserved for ritual and study, bringing it into contemporary, every-day colloquial speech–a feat not otherwise done in modern history. So for Anglos to make Aliyah, and not bother to learn, use, or embrace Hebrew as a native tongue—welcome, but don’t forget about this important aspect of both Israeli and Jewish life.

Hebrew matters. The language that we use to communicate matters.

In this week’s parasha, Noach, we read the story of Tower of Babel:

וַֽיְהִ֥י כָל־הָאָ֖רֶץ שָׂפָ֣ה אֶחָ֑ת וּדְבָרִ֖ים אֲחָדִֽים׃ For all of the land, everyone had the same language and the same words.1

I want to focus on that last phrase: D’varim Achadim. It’s a strange phrase whose meaning is obscure.

What were the D’varim Achadim, the same words? Perhaps this detail is to assure the reader that those who would build this Tower were unified in speech. Even while they spoke the same language, they also spoke the same dialect, their slang was the same. They all spoke Mandarin, and no one knew Cantonese. They used one currency: dollars and bucks, not pounds or quid.

Yet this phrase—d’varim achadim—confounds: A d’var is the Hebrew word for word. And echad—one, singular. “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad, Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, God is one.” When we recite the Sh’ma, some will emphasize the dalet in echad, lest one misspeak or mishear: “Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, God is Acher,” (with a resh), meaning God is another. In pronouncing our primary statement of God’s uniqueness with the slight change of a letter or pronunciation, we change the meaning of the Sh’ma—undoing monotheism. And so, the emphatic dalet.

In this instance, the use of the word echad is confusing because it’s in the plural—echadim. One is many. How do you have multiple ones? One plus one plus one plus one. The best translation for D’varim echadim, I believe is that the people who built the Tower of Babel had the “same words.” They spoke in one language, and they said the same thing in the same way with the same words.

Rashi preserves multiple interpretations as to what these folks were up to:

In one way, the people came together with the same plan of action:

וַיֹּאמְר֞וּ הָ֣בָה ׀ נִבְנֶה־לָּ֣נוּ עִ֗יר וּמִגְדָּל֙ וְרֹאשׁ֣וֹ בַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְנַֽעֲשֶׂה־לָּ֖נוּ שֵׁ֑ם פֶּן־נָפ֖וּץ עַל־פְּנֵ֥י כָל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ They said to one another, come let us build together a city and a tower whose top reaches the Heavens, and we will make a name for ourselves, lest we are scattered across the face of the land.2

In a kind view—building the tower was a community preservation act. In a more critical light—the tower was an expression of mortal, communal hubris. By coming together, unified, to build this tower, it was an expression of ego, a statement about human ability to achieve all that we can imagine. As Rabbi Chuck Kroloff writes, “Towers, in and of themselves, are not necessarily bad. But these were not simply towers built for some utilitarian or aesthetic purpose. These towers were motivated by an overweening, giant-size ambition… The midrash suggests that the builders intended nothing less than to ascend to heaven, set up idols as high as they could reach, and wage war with God.”3

For this reason, when God sees what this community can do together through collective action, God responds, “If this is how they begin to act, then nothing that they propose to do will be out of reach.” From God’s perspective here, human ability and cooperation becomes a threat to Divine distinction. Rashi also mentions in relation to this story that these builders who use d’varim echadim are speaking al y’chido shel olam, are speaking against the world’s Ultimate Unifier, against the Divine One who is Unity.

Should God be threatened by what humanity can achieve? Should God—who created the world and everything within it in just six days, who created humanity in God’s image, to be creators beside the Ultimate Creator—be intimidated by collective action?

God is smarter than that. God is not frightened or threatened by what humanity can achieve. God wants the achievements to be for the right things. Towers that aggrandize human ability, without recognizing our limitations, that is not it. Human creation that heightens the natural ongoing process of creation, that is another matter.

God confounds humanity’s speech, intentionally complicating our ability to work together, but does not limit our creativity. God confounds our speech, gives us different languages not to permanently hold us back from reaching the clouds and touching the sky, but to complicate the way there. Without adversity, we would never appreciate success.

If the writer did not wrestle with the blank page, we’d all be Hemingway’s and Bronte’s. Without the different languages, artistry would have no craft to it. Picasso had tremendous technical ability. His early work shows a discipline and detail that was refined by hours of training and practice. Only with that formal training, in the craft of painting, could he be Picasso—someone who broke down shape and structure, in order to create something new through Cubism. Picasso could only paint Guernica because he could also paint precise portraiture, as well. Creation and creativity require struggle, frustration, wrestling, undoing and redoing, writing and editing, only to later come out with the final product. If we could all easily build towers to make names for ourselves, the names we did make would not be of any note, as they would be crowded out by all the other skyscrapers put up right next door and down the block.

I think about that graffiti again: Welcome Americans, but speak Hebrew. Ironic that the graffiti artist could not say it in Hebrew. Learning Hebrew did not and does not come easily for me. I have had to work at it, and at times I still struggle around it. Though I am proud of the abilities I have developed. When we think about the creative tools we use, what effort did we put to develop them, to gain them? How many hours have we spent to learn Photoshop? How many 5:00 AMs have we shown up to a table with three blank pages in front of us to write morning pages, developing our craft as writers? Being creative is about both artistry and craft. An architect needs to know her building materials, a writer needs a solid vocabulary, a graphic designer needs an understanding of the relationship among lines, shapes, and textures. All of that comes only with study, practice, and a touch of creative frustration.

Rashi offers one other interpretation to the phrase D’varim Achadim—again drawing from Midrash—for what it means that these folks in this week’s parasha go off and build a tower toward the Heavens: “Once in every 1,656 years, the firmament collapses, as it did in the days of the Flood. Come and let us make supports for it.”4

Here, the community imagines itself in creative, covenantal partnership with God, and as stewards of the Earth. Here, their creativity is an effort to unify themselves with the Ultimate Creator, and to unify themselves with their surroundings. They are Christo and Jeanne-Claud, setting up orange gates throughout Central Park or running a fabric fence for 24-miles through Sonoma and Marin Counties.

There is a version of art that seeks not to create something out of nothing—but longs to release the inherent beauty out of nature. Michelangelo saw David captured within the slab of marble. He released the figure from his confines. From this perspective, creativity becomes an act of unification with God. God’s work and world is imperfect—every few thousand years there is a flood. We recognize that, and so let us use our creative powers to buttress our environment, to put up scaffolding around our home. By this interpretation, building the Tower of Babel was an attempt to say yes to God’s creation and add to it, not to usurp it.

The popular writer and speaker, Seth Godin, often claims that we are living in an age where everyone is an artist. That we each create for our lives. From the beginning of Genesis through this week’s parasha, our tradition, too, teaches that each person carries with him or herself the creative spark. The story of our people really begins next week with Parashat Lech L’cha, when we will meet Avram and Sarai for the first time, when God tells them to get up and go from their ancestral house, out on an ultimate journey. We move from the story of Creation, to the Garden of Eden, to Noah, to the Tower of Babel to emphasize God’s role as Creator, and to teach that creation is an ongoing process. And, that each of us is encouraged to struggle in the artistry, and to craft for ourselves, to make art out of our lives, and even still perhaps one day, we may touch the sky together.


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