In all of nine verses, the Book of Genesis tells the story of an ancient civilization being dismantled.1

This is the story of the people who constructed the ill-famed Tower of Babel, provoking G‑d and causing their dispersal and the abandonment of their building project.

What caused G‑d to be so angered? What was so wrong with erecting a tower?

On the surface, not only does its construction not seem condemnable, it seems even commendable.

The story verbatim:2

“The whole earth was of one language and of unified words.”

Not only were they "of one language," they were of one of heart as well:

“Each man said to his fellow…‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed across the whole earth.’”

Having taken to heart the harsh lesson of the generation of the Flood, a generation now extinct because of their inability to function as a harmonious society, this generation replaced animosity with goodwill and traded competition for collaboration.

Has there ever been a better show of solidarity than the one displayed by these united nations, with true camaraderie their sole agenda? It would see we have here a foretaste of messianic times, and perhaps a few candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize?

Making History

The Biblical commentaries break down the verses quoted earlier into three distinct statements, two of which are illuminated by the third:

1. They said: “G‑d does not have the right to select for Himself alone the higher realms. We will go up to the firmament and wage war with Him.” This is alluded to in their words, “Let us build us a tower with its top in the heavens.3

2. They said: “Once every 1,656 years, the firmament collapses as it did in the days of the Flood. Come and let us make supports for it.” This is alluded to in their words, “Let us build us a tower with its top in the heavens [i.e., in order to support the heavens] lest we be dispersed across the whole earth.”4

The pure idiocy of both of these propositions is obvious. Regarding the former: How exactly did they plan to storm the heavens and overthrow G‑d through the means of a physical tower?!

Their second concern is equally, if not more, preposterous: Firstly, of what concern was it to them what would happen 1,656 years later—centuries after their death? Were they such altruistic conservationists? Even more amusing was their scheme to somehow hold up the firmament with a bunch of bricks piled high.

This brings us to the third, and most telling, of their aims:

3. By creating the world’s first tower, the people of Babel sought to go down in the world’s hall of fame: “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed across the whole earth.”

A decoded reading of the words, “lest we be dispersed across the whole earth,” is, “Lest we fall between the cracks of world history and be forgotten.”

Confronting Mortality

A bit of historical context:

For the very first time since the world’s creation, man’s mortality had been brought to the fore with his near complete destruction by the Flood. Every single human being, save for Noah and his immediate family, as well as the lion’s share of the animal kingdom and the vegetative realm, had been utterly wiped out, drowned into oblivion by the Flood’s overpowering waters.

It took but a few weeks for the world and its inhabitants to go under—hardly a comforting thought for the people born in its wake.

Moreover, as opposed to the people who lived before the Flood, whose lifetimes had averaged close to a thousand years, the current lifespan was fast diminishing—just another jolting reminder of man’s short stay on earth.

It comes as no surprise then that the generations preceding the Flood never worried about making their mark on history. Given the lengthy lives they lived, they felt immortal. For them, the clock of life ticked by ever so slowly. So they lived day to day, busying themselves with enjoying the present, with nary a thought about the distant future.

That all changed in the aftermath of the Flood. Existence suddenly felt fleeting and finite, and so, to calm their insecurities, this new generation sought to circumvent death.

We can just imagine the summit of nations that was called in order to discuss this new and urgent international predicament. The world’s top leaders,5 scientists, philosophers, and theologians were probably invited to take part in this council. The pressing question of man’s transience had to be resolved.

Perhaps this is what they meant when they said, “G‑d does not have the right to select for Himself alone the higher realms. We will go up to the firmament and wage war with Him.” They wanted to transcend the finite constraints of earth and acquire the timeless character of heaven.6

After much deliberation, a unanimous resolution was passed: all nations would join forces to build the world’s first skyscraper.7

In this way, they believed, they would secure their immortality; for even though their bodies would die, they would forever be remembered for their architectural accomplishment. Their monumental contribution towards the advance of civilization and technology would warrant its own chapter in world history books.

In this way, they confidently told themselves and each other, they would live on forever— if not in body, at least in spirit, in the memory of mankind.

The Birth of Honor

This obsession of theirs was no small sin. It helped activate the root of all character flaws, and gave value and voice to man’s ultimate vice: his ego.

Until this point, we hear little or nothing of vainglory in the Biblical narrative. To be sure, mention is made of materialism and greed, pleasure-seeking and bodily indulgence, but of narcissism there are but subtle hints.

But here a new disease burst onto the world stage, initiated by the Babylonian building campaign. The loud sounds of chiseling axes and crackling fires echoed through the valley, as if to say, “Listen closely to the sounds made by powerful man, who has figured out how to touch the eternal, and to leave something that will resound through the portals of all time.”

Paradoxically, this universal effort made in the name of peace was driven by collective ego, the primary force that causes war. The same desire that fueled their communal venture, the desire to live on, would inspire many to cut other lives short.

How ironic that beneath the guise of solidarity and selflessness simmered the toxic poison of egocentricity and selfishness. Once unleashed, this destructive force would come to consume man and his deeds, wreaking havoc wherever it went. Sadly, it would become a significant spoke in the wheel that makes the world go round.

Dying for Attention

The people of Babel did indeed go down in history, but not exactly as they would have liked; instead of glory and stardom, their name is smeared with shame.

Because of their obsession with leaving a mark on this world, instead of building, they ended up demolishing. Worse yet, instead of using their awesome power of unity to benefit others, they squandered it on themselves. In place of investing their superior work force to better the world around them, they wasted it trying to be remembered by worlds to come.

For the very first time the art of communication had been expertly employed, creating the potential for international discourse and world redemption. But alas, that knack was used to block out the sound of others, and amplify the sound of their own call.

Thus, G‑d said:

Behold one people, and there is one language for all of them, and this they begin to do! ...

Come, let us descend8 and confuse their language, so that one will not understand the language of his companion.

The punishment fit the crime perfectly.

They had proven that they understood little about the beauty and power of language, and that in their unfit hands it would only go to waste.

On High it was decided that if they wouldn’t use this potent tool to do good, it was best taken from them so that they not use it to do bad.

This gave rise to the division of language and diversity of peoples that make up the world today. In an ironic twist of fate, this generation of so-called unity was dubbed “Dor Haflagah” in Jewish literature—the generation of disunity and separation.9

Holystic Medicine

The antidote to the decadent generation of the Flood was a man truly committed to the future.

Though Noah was definitely ahead of his times, he nonetheless could not serve as a role model for the builders of Babel. After all, his building of the Ark, like their building of the tower, had been about self-preservation and continuity.

This generation’s cure was Abraham.

He thought little of himself and much about others. He risked his life to save an errant nephew from captors, and then risked G‑d’s wrath when he attempted to defend Sodom.

Paradoxically, his claim to fame was his unassuming statement, “I am but dust and ash.” He was a man with no ego or eternal conservation plans. When G‑d willed that he sacrifice his son, he was willing to see his legacy (literally) go up in flames.

But precisely therein lay his immortality. For only through connecting to that which is truly immortal does one achieve immortality. G‑d alone lives on forever; taking along only those who cleave to Him.

Not through tall and imposing skyscrapers do we become timeless like the heavens, but through fulfilling G‑d’s everlasting will on earth.

What’s in it for me?

Our own lives, at different stages, tend to echo the voices of both the generations that preceded and followed the Great Flood.

We begin our lives, from babyhood onwards, much like Noah’s generation, preoccupied with the pleasures of the moment, trying to experience and enjoy as much as we can. As children, we are not usually worried about our own mortality and have nothing similar to adult pride. Honor and fame is grown-up talk.

But then at some point or another, hopefully later rather than sooner, children come to realize that life does not go on forever. For some, it may be the first funeral they attend; for others, a pet put down.

Feeling a sense of urgency, some try to maximize their stay. Instead of wasting their lives on “insignificant” pleasures, these will spend the rest of their days chasing honor and status.

Neither group has truly solved the problem. Neither has reached beyond their mortal lifespan.

But there is a third voice that quietly breaks through the untiring noise of the honor-chasers and the monument-builders.

The humble voice is Abraham’s, encouraging us to substitute the pursuit of earning respect with a real commitment towards G‑d and our fellows.

It is the secret to immortality.