Let us closely examine which story the Bible chooses to record following the devastating flood, the greatest natural disaster of all times, which wiped out almost all of humanity. It is the ambiguous story of the Tower of Babel. And here is how it reads(1):
“The whole earth was of one language and of common purpose ... And they said one to another: ‘...Let us build for ourselves a city and a tower whose top shall reach the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered over the face of the entire earth.’
“And G-d descended to look at the city and tower which the sons of man built, and G-d said, ‘...Shall it not be withheld from them all they proposed to do?...’ G-d scattered them across the face of the earth, and they stopped building the city.”
Is Construction Evil?
This is a strange story. Why did G-d interrupt their project? What was their sin? Their motives for building a city with a tower “whose top shall reach the heavens” are quite understandable, even noble. Mankind was only just reconstructing itself after the Flood, which had wiped out the entire human race, save for Noah and his family. Noah and his children were, according to tradition, still alive, thus giving the people a first-hand report of the Flood. If fledgling humanity were to survive, they needed to construct a strong city and tower that could possibly avoid the next disaster.
What was wrong with their scheme? Hasn’t the Bible made it a moral imperative to “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it(2)”?
Subduing the world never meant obliterating nature, or despoiling the environment. It meant responsible stewardship and making ourselves less vulnerable to nature through every possible natural mean. Why did G-d disapprove of their seemingly wonderful undertaking?
One of the possible answers is this: In stating their objective for creating the city and the tower, the people declared, “Let us build for ourselves a city and a tower whose top shall reach the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.” Their motive behind this dramatic construction plan was to immortalize their legacy in concrete structure; the endurance of their names in the annals of history.
But what’s the big deal? Who among us does not crave to be remembered? Who among us would mind securing a place in Who’s Who? How many of us would crave to read about ourselves in the newspapers or on the websites (as long as the name is spelled right)? How many of us really loathe seeing our names carved in glory on concrete walls, on the printed page and in the lasting pages of history books? Does G-d really care that much if people want to make a name for themselves?
Can You Ever Forget?
The answer is simple. When you have observed a flood in which the entire human race has perished, have you nothing else to think about but securing for yourself a name and a legacy?
Imagine somebody gazing at a home swiftly being consumed by a flood. Instead of running to rescue the people inside the home, this person stands and reflects how he can be sure to make a name for himself in the process. This would be grotesque. Can’t you ever forget about your ego? Is there never a moment when you are capable of saying to yourself, “Forget my legacy! Human lives need to be saved!”
There are such people. They are PR addicts, at any expense. A tragedy strikes and their only concern is: How do I use this to make a name for myself? How do I seize the opportunity to get my name out there yet again? These people usually need help. Their inner core is all-but-dead. In the long run, it is likely to harm their PR too, since they have nothing truly “inside” to give and display to the world.
When an entire generation has observed the consequences of a Flood that destroyed virtually the entire human race and becomes consumed instead with how to secure its legacy rather than with how to rebuild civilization and recreate a world founded on moral goodness and kindness, something is profoundly wrong. A worm has crept in to the very foundation of the project, and will ultimately prove destructive to the entire edifice. Corruption, manipulation, deceit and abuse of power are likely to flourish in the new city and tower.
This is true of every grand campaign undertaken to help humanity. If the objective is self-aggrandizement rather than service to G-d and His children, the very core is tainted. And the consequences of this blemish will likely be manifested in the future.
To Touch a Heart
Six decades ago our people experienced the greatest “flood” in our long and bloody history, with the murder of a third of the Jewish people, including one-and-a-half million children. Hundreds of communities were systematically wiped out and nobody uttered a sound.
In the aftermath of this titanic destruction, there were those who succumbed to basic human nature and asked one question: How do I make a name for myself as a grand leader, activist or visionary? But there were others who had one question on their mind: What do I do to rebuild a shattered people?
In our own lives we often observe people whose lives have been destroyed by a “flood,” in one form or another. Our question at such a time must always be: How do I heal a broken heart? How can I ignite a tortured soul? How can I help a survivor? How do I bring more light into a dark world? How do I increase acts of goodness and kindness? What new mitzvah can I undertake to heal the world? How do I extend myself to be there for another person? What can I do to change my corner of the world and make it a more moral and holy place?
What will I do today and tomorrow to move our aching planet one step closer to redemption?
(This essay is based on an address given by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in November 1959 (3) to a group of wealthy Jewish leaders on how we ought to respond to the “flood” of the Holocaust that exterminated a third of the Jewish people.)
1) Genesis 11:3-9. 2) Genesis 1:28. 3) Published in Likkutei Sichos vol. 3 pp. 750-753.