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Tower of Babel
Video 5 of 6
I'll give you a hint, the other time we have it also has to do with bricks - I believe it's the only other time in the Torah that bricks show up. When else do bricks show up, having to do with someone, a leader saying to his people, Hava - come, let's work towards this plan? The answer is when Pharaoh uses this language to enslave the Jews, that's actually the language which is used in the beginning of Exodus. Hava nitchakma lo - come let's deal wisely with them; Pen yirbeh - and before you know it, he is making them into slaves. What's the thing they do when they're slaves? They build cities, much like a city is built here. They build these large towers, except the towers in those cases are [granaries 1:37] - to store grain, these huge, storehouse cities, Pithom and Raamses. They build them with what? They build them with bricks. So these sort of correspondences kind of make you wonder why? It almost seems as if the Torah is patterning what Pharaoh said to his people after the Tower of Babel, making [us almost 1:55] wonder is this a slavery story too in some way? So this is something you want to think of also.
One last thing to put together as we come back to these - the double Vayomru with the Hava, is also this strange point over here in verse two, which is where are the guys building the tower? Now let me ask you this, if you were building a great tower and you could choose anywhere to build it, where would you build it? I don't know about you, but I'd maybe choose a hill, right? I mean, you could get a head start, you can start 500 feet above sea level and then you could really get closer to the heavens. It's strange, the people actually do the opposite. Vayehi benasam mikedem - we read in verse two, as they were travelling from the east. Vayimtze'u bike'ah - they found themselves a depression, a valley in the land of Shinar. Just a flat area. Vayeishvu sham - and they settled there. Why start at the lowest place around?
Okay so the idea that I want to suggest to you here is really an idea which is suggested by Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great giant of the 1800 Hamburg school of biblical analysis. What he suggests is something along the lines of the following and I think it's suggested by many of the language allusions and textual points which we've made here. Basically his argument is that the story that we're reading is a story about the birth of technology. It's actually a very contemporary story in that way.
If there's one thing that makes the world go - [in our days 3:20] we read a book like Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat, a process has historically come into being from the Industrial Revolution and has accelerated through the computer age and the digital age. One of the interesting things about it is that the process has actually - in Friedman's words - flattened the world. Brought the world together almost actually into this Babel-like state, where there's so much interconnection - the internet itself - between different parts of the world, that people can collaborate in many ways. What Hirsch argues is that this is a grand story of collaboration. Collaboration which is enabled not by the internet but enabled by, of all things, Safah Echat - people having one language. One way of seeing things. They use that ability to collaborate. The enterprise of technology is fundamentally a communal enterprise, it's not an individual enterprise. Any one person can only do X, Y and Z. It's really through different people doing different things and then working together as a community, that you can get a 747 from these thousands and thousands of different parts.
The birth of technology, Hirsch argues, comes about in this story. It comes about in the bricks. The people don't want to use stones. Stones are a great way to build a tower, they're not interested in that, stones are natural, they don't want to use pitch, they want to use cement, which they create themselves. That's why the building materials are so important. That's why they build in a valley. They don't want the hill, the hill is already a head start which nature gives them, they want to see what is it that they can do.
But the interesting thing is this, there are two plans. The first plan is actually just, let's make bricks. It wasn't even a tower, it was to make bricks. Why make bricks? Hava nilbenah leveinim - come, let's make bricks. Again, as we talked about bricks. Nilbenah leveinim - let's brick bricks, let's throw them in the fire, and then, what do you know, we can use these instead of stones. It's the first discovery of these different implements. Why? The answer is, really the same answer that John F. Kennedy gave, why do go to the moon? We go to the moon because we can. We make bricks because we can.
Step two, once you have bricks, well let's build a tower. What's the utility of the tower? What are you doing with the tower? Well we're not interested in the utility of the tower, but we can do it, we made bricks, what's the next step, we can make ourselves a tower. Which leads G-d to look at this and - I mean, what are they doing wrong, it's just a process of technological development, what's the problem with that? If you look actually at G-d's condemnation it's not even really a condemnation, G-d doesn't even say they're doing something wrong. But there is a danger. What is the danger?
The danger, I want to argue, is built up with why they're doing this. They're doing it to make themselves a name. What does it mean to make themselves a name? The tower is going to become their name? Above all, of course, they can't scatter. Well they can't scatter makes a lot of sense, I mean you can't be technological if you scatter, one person can't build a 747. The key is, I believe, the name. What does it mean to make themselves a name? What's the problem with making yourself a name, and that association with technology? Why should changing their language be the best way to destroy the whole process?
So these are, I think, issues which get us deeper into an understanding of the tower and we'll come back and talk about them when we come back next time.
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