Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Seussian Edifice Complex / Noach

The Tower of Babel narrative -- a mere 22 verses! -- is a thinly veiled, stinging commentary on the culture of ancient Babylonia. Babylonia (Bavel in Hebrew) is renowned for its technical advancements, not the least of which include wheeled vehicles, metalworking, surveying, and mathematics. The Babylonians built impressive ziggurats and hanging gardens, but they also invented siege engines, war chariots, and a rigid division of social classes.

Torah tells us that the people of Bavel (Babylonia) embark on an exceptionally ambitious building project:
Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words… They said to one another, “Come let us make bricks and burn them hard.” Brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we be scattered all over the world.” (Genesis 11: 1, 3-4)
Torah emphasizes that the people all speak the same language, and then adds that they have the same words, a seeming redundancy. We are accustomed to thinking that good communication begets efficiency and productivity. And that is certainly the case here. So why is God displeased?

There are hints in the words: First, Torah emphasizes that the people of Bavel made bricks, baked them and combined them with mortar. We find the very same language used in the account of slavery in Egypt -- l’veinim (bricks) and chomer (mortar) -- no doubt an allusion to servitude in Egypt (Exodus 1:13-14). Imagine how human labor must have been exploited to build that tower.

That could well point to one reason that God views the mammoth Lego tower askance. What seems, on the surface, a lovely building project, the product of excellent communication, is actually an exercise in exploitation to satisfy the vanity of (most likely) the king.

Even more: They spoke the same language, but Torah then says [they had] the same words (that redundancy in Genesis 11:1). If we already know they speak the same language, would we not presume they have the same words? Having the same words, saying the same thing, suggests that the people were either all of one mind, or coerced into expressing the same ideas. Totalitarianism and fascism leap to mind, and certainly accord with Torah’s hint that the Tower is built by exploited, or possibly slave, labor. No wonder God’s solution is to befuddle their speech so that they all sound like they’re speaking jibberish to one another. In fact, that is what Bavel means, and English derives the word “babble” from it.

My first lesson in totalitarianism and exploitation was courtesy of that great social critic and moral "philosophiser," Dr. Seuss. Yertle the Turtle is more-or-less a version of the Tower tale. The location’s name -- Sala-ma-Sond itself sounds like babbling. In Dr. Seuss’ fine style:
On the far-away island of Sala-ma-Sond,
Yertle the Turtle was king of the pond.
A nice little pond. It was clean. It was neat.
The water was warm. There was plenty to eat.
The turtles had everything turtles might need.
And they were all happy. Quite happy indeed.

They were... until Yertle, the king of them all,
Decided the kingdom he ruled was too small.
"I'm ruler," said Yertle, "of all that I see.
But I don't see enough. That's the trouble with me.
With this stone for a throne, I look down on my pond
But I cannot look down on the places beyond.
This throne that I sit on is too, too low down.
It ought to be higher!" he said with a frown.
"If I could sit high, how much greater I'd be!
What a king! I'd be ruler of all that I see!"
Those of you who are cultured intellectuals and aficionados of fine literature know the outcome: King Yertle presses all the turtles into service to build his high throne using their bodies as bricks. When the turtles complained of their pain and hunger…
"You hush up your mouth!" howled the mighty King Yertle.
"You've no right to talk to the world's highest turtle.
I rule from the clouds! Over land! Over sea!
There's nothing, no, NOTHING, that's higher than me!"
Yertle the Turtle King’s throne comes crashing down when one little turtle named Mack -- stuck at the bottom of the stack -- burped.

Could Yertle have built his self-aggrandizing throne without oppressing his subjects? Could the Tower of Babel have been built without exploiting human beings?

This alone would be sufficient reason for God to scuttle the Tower project. In addition to conscripted labor, imagine how much time, energy, and materials are wasted. Yet perhaps there is another reason, also hinted at in the language of the passage.

The people of Babel build the Tower to make a name for themselves. The building of the Tower, which likely features exploitation and oppression, also serves to separate the people of Babel, to distinguish them, from all other peoples. Let’s explore that avenue for a moment.

Biblical narratives are often stylistically chiastic: this means that we find the climax or most important part in the middle. Here is the very center of the 22-verse Tower narrative.
The Lord came down to look at the city and tower that humans had built, and the Lord said, “If as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.” (Genesis 11:5)
The verb “to look at” or “to see” seems extraneous, just as [they had] the same words. God needs to come down to see? God doesn’t already know? Why is God’s seeing so important? The verb lir’ot (“to see”) is pivotal.

The people see the Tower as a reflection of their greatness. Others will see the Tower and acknowledge the people of Babel as superior. Everyone sees, but doesn’t really see. The sight of the Tower blinds them to what is true and important. The Tower -- and the fine communication that facilitates its construction -- have separated people from one another, from God, from the very world. And so God sees that the Tower is a big problem.

The Hasidim tell a parable about a king and his palace, and what people see. The story -- which is found in many versions -- is attributed to the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, 1698-1760, the founder of Hasidism).
A king had a glorious palace with many chambers, one inside another, in concentric circles. The king hid himself in the center, behind wall after wall. Guards were stationed at the doors to each chamber to prevent anyone from entering. Wild beasts ran free throughout the outer chambers of the palace. The king issued a proclamation that anyone who came to see him would be richly rewarded. The guards turned back most who approached the palace. A few scaled the walls but were driven back by the terrifying wild beasts. Those who made it past the wild beasts were given gold coins and precious jewels by the guards. They were so pleased with these that they forgot their goal had been to visit the king. No one reached the king’s chamber except the king’s son. He ignored the guards, scaled the walls, evaded the wild animals, and threw the money and jewels down. He recognized that all these were distractions, barriers, obstacles. He longed to see his father. He sat down and cried. “Father, father, don’t keep me away from you. Let me into your presence!” At once the guards, the beasts, the walls -- indeed every outer part of the palace -- disappeared. The son found himself in the presence of his father, who was seated on a majestic throne. It was then that the son realized that the king had never been concealed or hidden from view. The guards, the walls, the wild beasts, the money, and the jewels were all illusions. He had been in the king’s presence all along, but had been unable to see him until he set everything else aside.
The story reminds us that we are always in God’s presence, but often cannot experience (“see”) God’s presence because of so many illusory walls and obstacles in our lives, including ideas, emotions, but perhaps most of all material reality. All those ideas, emotions, and objects are real, to be sure, and they are also important and valuable in our lives, but they are not ultimate. We need to see beyond them.

We see our individual selves as distinct and separate, unique and unparalleled. And indeed, that too is true and necessary. But on a higher spiritual level, we come to see that all distinctions fade away; they are illusory. The unity of the universe includes us; we are not separate from it. We are all part of God and God is within us all. Our very bodies are constructed of atoms that have been part of who knows how many people, plants, objects, and stars before. They came into being in the early moments of the universe after the Big Bang. And they will be recycled after we die. Our lives are not separate from the flow of the universe; we are part of the great rushing river of the evolving universe. When we can “see” our connection, the guards, beasts, walls, and material distractions fall away, we can see what is real and be in God’s presence. We can visit God.

When we have that vision of God and the universe, we see that totalitarianism and exploitation run counter to God’s will. God loves diversity -- the many languages people speak at the end of the story dramatize this -- but it is diversity within a great unity.

In a world corrupted by human trafficking, child labor, children used as soldiers, exploitation of cheap labor, sexual abuse, and even the struggle for a living wage, we see that we build our own Towers. It’s time to vacate these towers and enter God’s palace.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

1 comment:

  1. Profound juxtaposition of Dr. Seuss and the Baal Shem Tov. Yesterday on NPR, they were reflecting on the words we receive from the Greek: hubris, pathos, tragedy...and how all of those relate to the economic crisis. (is crisis also from the Greek?) This story has given us the word: babble.
    You have called upon us to see, really, really see, through penetration of illusory walls.
    kol hakavod!