Schlepherds and Cities

A friend and colleague of mine shared with me a Dvar Torah she wrote on the occasion of her son’s bar mitzvah this Shabbat. In her remarks she is addressing the fascinating story of Migdal Bavel, the Tower of Babel. In a mere 9 verses this story tries to explain why humanity became multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and possessing thousands of different languages. She outlines different approaches to this story. The first is that the central sin of these ancient people was in building a tower to reach the heavens.  As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote, the people wished “to demonstrate that, if all join forces and work together, mankind can overpower nature.”  It is their hubris in attempt to reach the godly sphere that causes God to scatter them.

Another approach she shared was from Drs.  Robert Alter and James Kugel. These biblical scholars point out that the text does not necessarily support this interpretation.  In fact, while the tower is certainly there in the story, it is hardly the whole point.  If it were, there would have been no need to mention the building of a city at all.  In fact, Kugel writes, “it is remarkable that, after God’s intervention, the text says, ‘and the building of the city was stopped.’  There is not a word about the tower’s fate; if it were so crucial, should not the text have mentioned its collapse or abandonment?”In this interpretation it was urban materialism itself that the Torah is rejecting.

I find this point of view particularly interesting when you juxtapose it with Yosef’s dreams. There in Parshat Vayeshev we read of Yosef’s dreams when he has dreams of their stars and bundles of wheat bowing to his. While the brothers are clearly angered by the idea of their having to bow to their little brother. But, is that enough to make them what to kill or even enslave their brother. Rabbi Riskin interprets that the dream of the wheat was really  prediction of Yosef or his preaching for the transition from the nomadic shepherd way of life to the settled farmer lifestyle. It was as if Yosef was saying what would be later popularized in the New Testament that his brothers needed to put their childish things away.    In some sense his dream was calling for a radical technological innovation. They went after Yosef because he was calling for  end of life as they knew it.  And sure enough that is exactly what happened. In this light it seems that Yosef was leading us back to the “crime” of Migdal Bavel. 

Some questions to consider:

  • What is the difference between the building project of the Mikdash and Migdal Bavel?
  • What is the role of Jerusalem  (or Tel Aviv for some)  in Jewish thought?
  • What is the relationship between the  ideal contemporary Jewish life and urban living?
  • Will the Jewish people survive being scattered outside of our cities?

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