They said to one another: “. . . Let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top shall reach the heavens; and we shall make for ourselves a name, lest we be scattered over the face of the entire earth . . .”
G‑d dispersed them from there across the face of the earth, and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel (confusion), for there G‑d confused the language of the world.
What was their sin? Their motives for building a city with a tower “whose top shall reach the heavens” seem quite understandable. Mankind was only just reconstructing itself after the Flood that had wiped out the entire human race, save for Noah and his family. If fledgling humanity was to survive, unity and cooperation were of critical importance. So they set out to build a common city to knit them into a single community. At its heart, they planned a tower which would be visible for miles, a landmark to beckon to those who had strayed from the city and a monument to inspire commitment to their common goal—survival. All they wanted was to “make for ourselves a name”—to ensure the continuity of the human race.
And yet their project to preserve humanity deteriorated into a rejection of all that humanity stands for, and an open rebellion against their Creator and purpose. Their quest for unity resulted in the breakup of mankind into clans and factions, and the onset of close to four thousand years of misunderstanding, xenophobia, and bloodletting across the divisions of race, language, and culture. Where did they go wrong?
But precisely that was their error: they saw survival as an end in itself. “Let us make a name for ourselves,” they said; let us ensure that there will be future generations who will read of us in their history books. But why survive? For what purpose should humanity inhabit the earth? What is the content of the name and legacy they are laboring to preserve? Of this they said, thought, and did nothing. To them, life itself was an ideal, survival itself a virtue.
This was the beginning of the end. No physical system will long tolerate a vacuum, and this is true of spiritual realities as well: unless a soul or cause is filled with positive content, corruption will ultimately seep in. (See Rashi on Bereishis 37:24.) A hollow name and shrine soon becomes a Tower of Babel.
After The Flood
Never has the lesson of the Tower of Babel been more pertinent to our people than it is today. We, too, are a generation struggling to recoup after a holocaust of destruction that threatened to erase us from the face of the earth. Reconstruction and survival are uppermost in our minds, and together, with the Al‑mighty’s help, we are succeeding.
At a time like this, it is extremely important that we not repeat the error of the builders of Babel. Rebuild we must, but the objective must be more than a more enduring name, a greater city, a taller tower. If we are to survive, we must give import to our survival, reiterate the “why” of our existence. We must fill our name with value and our city with significance, and crown the tower of our resurgence with the higher purpose for which we were created.
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, z’l, in an address 4 Cheshvan 5720 (1959), published in Likkutei Sichos, vol. 3, pp. 750–752. Adapted by Rabbi Yanki Tauber in “The Inside Story.” Courtesy of MeaningfulLife.com via Chabad.org. Find more Torah articles for the whole family at www.chabad.org/parshah.