Posts Tagged 'Tower of Babel'

Babel on the Hill: We All Need an Audience

Zoom-fatigue is real. I need people. These screen and zoom boxes are not cutting it.

This reminds me of a troubling story told in the name of the Besht:

There was a king who loved music but his real passion was the violin. A fiddler was brought to him to play and one particular melody captivated him. He instructed the musician to play this melody several times a day. After a time the musician grew weary of the tune and found it hard to play it with the same passion as before. To rekindle the fiddler’s love for his favorite melody, the king was advised to summons a new audience every day. Strangers were brought into his palace who had never heard the melody.
This arrangement seemed to work. A new audience stirred the fiddler to play with enthusiasm again until there was no one left to invite. What to do?
It was decided to blind the musician so that he never see a human form again. He then sat before the king and whenever the king sought to hear his favorite tune he would simply say “Here comes someone new, One who has never heard you play before!”
And musician would play his tune with the greatest joy.

I will come back to violence another time. But it is clear that we need an audience. It is really hard to perform without one. I was thinking about this when reading John Winthrop’s, oft quoted homily, City on a Hill from 1630. He wrote: 

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.

John Winthrop
Searching for the City on a Hill: Tracing the Roots of America's Metaphor

It is interesting that Winthrop and subsequently America has cast an imagination that the whole world is watching as they build this city perched on a hill. Our civilization is the stage and the world is our audience. It speaks to this basic need to be seen. And yes we will fail, but in having an audience we will always strive to become better.

I was considering all of this when thinking about the failure of the Tower of Babel. There we read:

Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. 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 shall be scattered all over the world.”

Genesis 11:1-4

I offer for your consideration that they failed in building their Tower on a hill as an exemplary civilization precisely for the reason that ” everyone on earth” was involved in the project. They were all on stage. In not having audience they lacked motivation, inspiration, or accountability.

Down Tower

In Noah, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the Tower of Babel. Following the generations of the flood humanity united speaking a single language. They resolved to build a city with a tower. They wanted to build a tower “whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”( Genesis 11:4) God came down and saw what they are doing.  There we read:

And the Lord said, ‘Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Come let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech’.So God scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did confound the language of all the earth: and from there God scattered them abroad upon the face of all the earth. (Genesis 11:6-9)

While we can argue about their motivations in building this tower, for now, I want to think about what they were feeling after the tower came down. How did these people deal with being scattered all over the world and their inability to communicate with each other? It sounds horrible. The fear of being alone itself helps me understand their motivation to build the tower at the start of this story.

I was thinking about this feeling this week when I saw a video of the comedian Louis C.K. on the Conan O’Brien Show. Louis C.K. gives a classic rant against cell phones pointing out why connected devices are especially “toxic” for kids. In this short 5-minute piece, which I encourage you to watch, he gives his insights about the role of technology in our lives.

He makes it sound so simple. Louis C.K. says:

I look around, pretty much 100% of the people driving are texting. And they’re killing, everybody’s murdering each other with their cars. But people are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second because it’s so hard.

Why are we so afraid of being alone?  He goes on to say:

You need to build an ability to just be yourself, and not be doing something. That’s what the phones have taken away — is the ability to just sit there like this. That’s being a person, right?

Cell phones are toxic because we never experience being alone. I imagine this to be a similar feeling that they must have had after the Tower of Babel came down. Being in touch with this emptiness makes us want to fill that void with authentic and meaningful communication. If we are not in touch with being alone we will never truly appreciate the people in our lives. After the learning about theTower of Babel, you sort of want the cell tower to also fall. We would not have more meaningful relationships in our lives if the cell phones were not in the way? At the least we have Shabbat to unplug.


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