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Can We Ever Forge Our Ego?
The Tower of Babel
By Yosef Y. Jacobson

Reflecting on the many devastating floods and other natural disasters that have effected the lives of so many during the past years -- from the Tsunami to Katrina; from Pakistan to Guatemala -- naturally brings to mind the tragic tale of the Great Flood recorded in this week's Torah portion, which wiped out almost all of humanity from the face of the earth.

Let us, in that case, carefully examine which story the Bible chooses to record following the one about devastating flood, so that we might discover what ought to be our appropriate response to the horrible disasters of our own era.

It is, as we know, 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 from there 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? Isn’t human civilization supposed to construct structures to defend itself from natural disasters? Hasn't the Bible itself 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?

The answer 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 and secure a place in Who's Who? How many of us would be perturbed seeing their picture in a newspaper? How many of loathe seeing our names carved on concrete walls or in history books? Does G-d really care if people want to make a name for themselves?

Forget the legacy

The answer is simple but powerful. 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. Instead of saving a child from the tide, this person is contemplating how to ensure his photo on CNN or CBS? This would be grotesque. Can't you ever forget about your ego? Is there never a moment you are capable of saying to yourself, "The hell with my legacy! Human lives need to be saved!"

When an entire generation has observed the consequences of a Flood that destroyed virtually the entire human race and becomes consumed 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, incidentally, true of every grand campaign undertaken to help humanity. If the objective is self-aggrandizement rather than service to G-d and His children, its very core is blemished.  And the consequences of this blemish are likely be manifested in the future.

To touch a heart

Alas! This past year, too, we have observed floods that extinguished close to 150,000 divine candles and inflicted untold suffering on millions of victims, suffering that might last a lifetime. Complete villages have disappeared from the face of the earth. Terror has cut short the lives of countless innocent lives. Pain and darkness have descended upon our planet in enormous might. At such a moment, we must stop thinking about "making for ourselves a name."

Our question at such a time must instead be: How do I rebuild 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 universe and make it a more moral and holy place? And what can I do to stop terrorists from committing evil against good people?

Above all, 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, including 11/2 million children.)

E-mail the author at: YYJ@algemeiner.com


1) Genesis 11:3-9.
2) Genesis 1:28.
3) Published in Likkutei Sichos vol. 3 pp. 750-753.

Posted on November 3, 2005
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