Whenever I drive into New York City, I am always struck by the view of the buildings and skyscrapers. It is a picture which I first encountered on the cinema screen, and there is something about those feats of human engineering that always impress me. My eyes are often drawn to the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, and I am fascinated by the idea that these two buildings were essentially constructed in competition with one another for the title tallest building in the world.
The quest to erect the tallest building may be dated back to this week’s Torah portion. Following on from the story of Noah and the flood, the Torah tells us that: ‘the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech’ (Genesis 11:1), emphasizing the uniformity of humanity as descendants of one man. Joining together they say: ‘Come, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach to heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth’ (Genesis 11:4). On the one hand they aspire to erect the world’s tallest building; but the aim is not just for a tall building, it is almost implied that through this building they will make a name for themselves and avoid being scattered across the world.
It is not entirely clear why, but God appears to be concerned that if they can succeed in this project, they will be able to succeed in anything they aspire to do. The way to stop them appears to be by introducing a diversity of language, to prevent them from understanding one another, and by spreading them across the earth. As the story concludes: ‘Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because Adonai did there confuse the language of all the earth; and from there did Adonai scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth (Genesis 11:9).
The people fail in their quest to construct a city and a tower, they fail in their quest to avoid being scattered across the earth, but they succeed in making a name for themselves, or at least for the place where they embarked on this project. But it is a name which is tarnished by the experience; it is a name which remembers the confusion and failure.
It is all well and good to seek to build the tallest building in the world, but perhaps the question is what is planned to go inside the building. In a similar way we can aspire to make a name for ourselves, but we should always be conscious of what associations we want there to be with our names; for as we know there are many names which are remembered for notoriety, shame and embarrassment.
The people of Babel aspired to greatness for greatness’ sake, and they wanted a name, without considering why they should deserve one. Next week, God will promise Abram that ‘I will your name great’ (Genesis 11:2), this pledge is related to the way in which Abraham will leave his life and the way in which he will therefore be remembered. In Judaism the aspiration is not simply to attain a name, it is to obtain a good name, for as Proverbs says a good name is more valuable than great riches (Proverbs 22:1).
And if you want to listen to this Two Minutes of Torah: