By: Rabbi Joan Glazer Farber, R.J.E., Adult Learning Specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism, New York
“L’Takein Et Ha’Olam” — Repairing our World
The United Nations General Assembly has just completed its annual meeting in New York. It should be seen as a time when people come together to speak about common goals and peace. Inside the UN, some speakers call for cooperation, while others stoke the flames of hatred.
In this context, Parashat Noach reminds us of the challenges of speech for humanity. In 9 short verses, the people shift from a shared language and vocabulary to multiple languages, from understanding to confusion.
“They said, ‘Come, let us build a city with a tower that reaches the sky, so that we can make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the earth!’ Then Adonai came down to look at the city and tower the people had built, and Adonai said, ‘Look—these are all one people with one language, and this is just the beginning of their doings; now no scheme of theirs will be beyond their reach! Let us go down there and confuse their speech, so that no one understands what the other is saying.'” (Genesis 11:4-7)
On the surface, the actions of the people appear to represent cooperation and understanding, yet their end goal reflects their egos and their fears. They want to make a name for themselves based on their acts of grandeur and at the same time that want to avoid being scattered over the earth. God has a problem with this plan and recognizes that their shared language, their ability to understand each other is the ability to reach their goal. For the first time, we see a punishment that fits the crime, as God confuses their language and scatters them over the face of the earth.
Today, we are the heirs of multiple languages and live in a world where peoples do not understand the ways of their neighbors. We require translators and experts to explain what actions imply and words mean. As Jews, who live around the world and among many cultures, we have maintained a common language for prayer, study and ritual and have learned the language of the societies in which we live. We dedicate ourselves l’takein et haolam—to repair our world through understanding and caring for the other so that we might live in peace with our neighbors.