By: Rabbi Nir Barkin and Smadar Bilik, DOMIM – aLike Israel-Diaspora Project, a joint initiative of the Diaspora Ministry of the Israel Government and the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ)
The story of the Tower of Babel, which appears toward the end of this Torah portion, marks the end of the series of stories relating to human history before the appearance of Abraham, the founder of the Jewish nation and the first believer on the stage of history.
The story of the Tower of Babel is traditionally regarded as a tale of crime and punishment. According to this model, humans sinned in their attempt to glorify themselves and rise up to the sky, the limit of human existence, and closer to God. Accordingly, they were punished by the “confusion of their tongues” – the creation of distinct human languages and their dispersal across the globe.
This reading of the Tower of Babel as a story of crime and punishment continues the theme of the creation stories presented in the two preceding Torah portions describing the repeated attempts by humans to disobey God’s orders, and the resulting penalties.
However, some sages through the generations preferred not to see the Tower of Babel as a classic story of crime and punishment. The early sages found it difficult to interpret the story. Bereshit Rabbah** comments that “the action of the generation of the flood has been interpreted, but the action of the generation of division [the Tower of Babel, when the nations divided off from each other] has not been interpreted” (38:6). Rabbi Shmuel Ben Meir** adds a stark question: “According to the simple text, what was the sin of the generation of division?”
Ibn Ezra** writes that the Tower of Babel is indeed not a story of crime and punishment, but rather one of human misunderstanding and its correction in accordance with the divine plan. In contrast to God’s blessing “be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth,”** which was given to both Adam and Noah, the generation of division decided to unite to build the Tower of Babel. Accordingly, God adjusts the future course of human existence in accordance with the divine plan for humanity. Ibn Ezra comments “God dispersed them, and this is good for them.” In other words, what we have here is not a punishment, but a divine favor for humankind, in order to help it achieve its inherent purpose – to replenish the earth. Continuing the line of thought raised by the ancient sages, we might see the story of the Tower of Babel not only as an explanation for the division of humankind into peoples, cultures, and languages, but also as a powerful statement of defense for human plurality and diversity, which are shown to be part of the divine plan.
Against the background of the message presented in the story of the Tower of Babel, we can turn our attention to diversity – not only among the peoples of the world, but also within the Jewish people.
The Babylonian Talmud (in tractate Pesahim) comments that “God did a great favor for Israel in dispersing them among the nations.” The sages offer several reasons why dispersion has benefited the Jewish people. Some argue that dispersion saved the Jews from the annihilation they would have faced had they remained in the Land of Israel. Others suggest that the dispersion of the Jews around the Earth will bring the Torah to the nations of the world: “It is like a dish of perfume placed in the cemetery where no-one can smell it. What did they do? They took it and moved it from place to place so that the world could know its fragrance.”**
DOMIM – aLike, the joint initiative of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) and the Israeli Diaspora Ministry to build links with progressive Jewish communities around the world, sees diversity in the Jewish people as a great favor by God to Israel.
The ability to contain diverse languages, cultures, and habitats within a single people provides the Jewish people with tremendous diversity of ideological, social, cultural, religious, and philosophical viewpoints. Every Jewish thinker who has ever lived anywhere around the globe draws into their writing and actions the culture and language in which they work, thereby fusing Jewish and local culture. This has been true since the earliest Biblical times, when our ancestors wandered to and from the Land of Israel. It was also true for the sages of Babylon, and on to Maimonides and Rabbi Judah Halevy, Spinoza, Marx, Freud, S.Y. Agnon, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and countless others. All these thinkers are evidence of the favor God did to the Jewish people by dispersing them among the nations. It is moving and fascinating to see that despite this dispersion to every corner of the Earth, across diverse countries, languages, and cultures, and down through thousands of years, the Jewish people has nevertheless managed to maintain a close affinity among all its communities, wherever they may be.
DOMIM aims to create an open group of Progressive Jewish communities around the world, linked to each other and to Israel. We have also introduced a festival to celebrate the ongoing bond of Jewish existence around the globe, as well as diverse programs to maintain contact between Jews in different countries.
The new date in the Jewish calendar – Diaspora Israel Day – has been set for the 7th of Cheshvan and was introduced in 5776 (2015). Dozens of communities, rabbis, educators, and lay leaders around the world are already celebrating for a second year the favor God did us when he dispersed us among the nations.
We invite you to join thousands of others who have visited our new website and who will be celebrating Diaspora Israel Day this year on the 7th of Cheshvan – 8 November 2016.
Bereshit Rabbah is an ancient aggadic midrash on the Book of Genesis, written in the Land of Israel and redacted in the fifth or sixth century.
Rabbi Shmuel Ben Meir, better known as “the Rashbam” (approx. 1080-1160) was a commentator on the Bible, Talmud, and Toseftot and the grandson of Rashi.
Rabbi Avraham Ben Meir Ibn Ezra was a poet, linguist, Biblical commentator, and philosopher active during the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry.
Genesis 1:28: “And God blessed them; and God said unto them: ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth…’”
Genesis 9:1: “And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth.”
Midrash Tanhuma on Parashat Lech Lecha. Midrash Tanhuma, also known as “Midrash Yelamdenu,” is a collective term for three collections of aggadic midrashim. The Midrash discusses the Pentateuch and is named after the Amora Rabbi Tanhuma Bar Abba, who lived and taught in the Land of Israel, many of whose sayings are preserved in the text.