In this week’s Parsha we read about the descendants of the survivors of the great flood who sought to unite by building a city with a great tower. The Torah relates:

Now the entire earth was of oneWhy is building a city a terrible sin? language and uniform words. And it came to pass when they traveled from the east, that they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks and fire them thoroughly"; so the bricks were to them for stones, and the clay was to them for mortar. And they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth." (Genesis 11:1-3)

G‑d is alarmed by their actions and steps in to foil their plan. He disrupts their unity and the project collapses. As G‑d tells the angels:

“Come, let us descend and confuse their language, so that one will not understand the language of his companion." And the L‑rd scattered them from there upon the face of the entire earth, and they ceased building the city. (Genesis 11:7-8)

Why is building a city a terrible sin? What is wrong with building a tower?

The story of the tower is relevant today, perhaps more than ever, for it is not a story about an ancient construction site, but about the development of cutting edge technology.

The building of the Tower of Babel represents a dramatic leap in the development of industry. Up to that point, people had built homes out of stone. Stone is a divine creation. Places like Babylonia, where there were no mountains and thus no stones, were considered inhospitable to the building of cities. Human ingenuity, however, created a new technology—the brick.

The people said to each other:

"Come, let us make bricks and fire them thoroughly"; so the bricks were to them for stones, and the clay was to them for mortar. (Genesis 11:3)

Fascinated by their ability to create a man-made stone, they sought to demonstrate that the brick was far superior to the stone created by G‑d. They wanted to show that the brick, not the stone, was the material of choice in building the tallest tower in the world, within the greatest city in the world.

The Torah does not state clearly that they rebelled against G‑d, lest we mistakenly think that developing technology is a sin.

What then was the problem?

The Midrash relates that during construction of the tower, when a person fell off the tower and died nobody cared. However, if a brick fell and cracked, they all stopped to mourn the lost brick.1 This is a powerful Midrash. It teaches us that a single-minded drive to achieve power and independence, with no higher purpose, can lead to totalitarianism where human life is devalued.

The message of the story is relevant, now more than ever. The past century has witnessed the “floods” of the most devastating wars in the history of humankind, as well as the explosion of human scientific knowledge and technological advances.

TheAdvancements in technology do not necessarily mean advances in higher purpose message of the tower of Babel is that the towers and cities we create must have a higher purpose. Advancements in technology do not necessarily mean advances in human rights, and certainly do not automatically lead to us being better people with a closer relationship with G‑d.

Each and every one of us can choose how to approach the ever increasing technologies introduced into our lives. We can become the builders of the tower of Babel, or we can emulate Abraham.

The Midrash tells us that Abraham watched the building of the tower, and he saw the lack of deeper meaning. He understood that a building with no higher purpose is dangerous. He realized that humanity’s purpose cannot merely be to make a name for itself, to achieve material success.

In next week’s Torah portion we read how in contrast to the builders of the tower, whose only purpose was to make a name for themselves, Abraham made it his life’s mission to proclaim the name of G‑d. He made it his goal and purpose to teach anyone who would listen, that all human achievement should just be a tool for a higher, more spiritual, purpose.2