A Devar Torah on Parashat Noach. The link here is good; what I wrote is also reposted below without formatting. This was, by the way, sent to those who lived in my (Jewish) dormitory. (Thanks to Aderet Okon Drucker and Brett Drucker for encouraging me to write this by the way!)
In one of my favorite scenes from the 1933 Marx Bros. film Duck Soup, the following dialogue takes place as Groucho Marx tests Chico Marx for a job:
Groucho: Now, what is it that has four pairs of pants, lives in Philadelphia, and it never rains but it pours?
Chico: Atsa a good one… I give you three guesses!
Groucho: Now let me see. Has four pairs of pants, lives in Philadelphia… is it male or female?
Chico: No, I don’t think so.
Groucho: Is he dead?
Groucho: I don’t know. I give up!
Chico: I give up too!
Attempting to follow the conversation above might be confusing, and the fact that Chico gets the job in the end may be even more confusing. However, no part of Duck Soup could possibly be as confusing as the terminal conversations encountered by the people of Bavel, Babel, in this week’s Torah Portion, Parashat Noah.
Bavel does not get much attention in this Torah portion. Out of a parashah that’s about 6 chapters long, the story of Bavel lasts only 9 verses of 32 verses from one of our six chapters. But the story waxes nostalgic of an era when everyone understood each other (Genesis 11:1):
ויהי כל הארץ שפה אחת ודברים אחדים
It was when the whole Earth was of one tongue and united words…
On the surface, this unity of language—this communicative compatibility—sounds pretty good. I often wish I understood more of the words that I hear in the classroom… and then see on midterms. In fact, our story’s universal state of clarity must have been pretty sweet; evidently, the entire human race got together and made some literally big plans (11:4):
ויאמרו הבה נבנה לנו עיר ומגדל וראשו בשמים ונעשה לנו שם פן נפוץ על פני האדמה
They said, “Come, let’s build us a city and a fortress with its head in the sky, and we will make ourselves a shem lest we are scattered across the face of the earth!”
Things seemed pretty dandy down below, but not all was well up above; God goes down (וירד) to see the city and the fortress these humans are making (9:5), and God gets some speaking lines (11:6-7):
ויאמר ה‘ הן עם אחד ושפה אחת לכלם
God said, “Here is one nation with one language for all!
וזה החלם לעשות ועתה לא יבצר מהם כל אשר יזמו לעשות
“And now that they’ve initiated this, will they never be stopped from anything they plan to do!?
הבה נרדה ונבלה שם שפתם אשר לא ישמעו עיש שפת רעהו
“Let’s go down and confound (v’nav’lah) there their speech so that nobody will understand the speech of one’s peer!”
Sounds almost like God is up to some wild antics here, but God keeps God’s word, just as we should expect (11:8):
ויפץ ה אתם משם על פני כל הארץ ויחדלו לבנות העיר
God scattered them from there—across the face of the Earth; and they ceased from building that city.
But upon encountering this story for the first time, one might wonder why God would want to cease this construction that appeared to be an act of human harmony. Also, one might have wondered, a few verses ago, what exactly is a shem.
Literally, a name, a shem, related to the Arabic wasama (“brand,” or “mark”), is also (in Biblical Hebrew) a reputation, a representation, a memorial or even a monument. When humanity chose to create a shem for itself, it chose to create a monument up to the heavens to memorialize a mark of humanity: the view of one’s self as mighty. In the end though, it’s not hard to see God taking issue with God’s creations suddenly trying to outdo God and reclaim themselves as their own god; any people conscious of a God and of the powers their God holds cannot be thinking clearly if they can equate themselves with God.
Yet another explanation of what exactly this shem is comes, in Bereshit Rabbah (38 [11:4]), from one of the earliest of our rabbis, Rabbi Yishma’el (living close to the turn from BCE to CE):
אין שם אלא עבודת כוכבים
“A shem implies nothing other than worship of the stars!”
Seeing this shem in the shamayim (“heavens” or “sky”) as having an astrological significance is not too far-fetched. In fact, names (shemot) played great roles in human superstitions in ancient magic. And even though some of these superstitions about names have shaped certain conventions in contemporary Judaism (i.e. referring to “shemeh rabba” [“God’s great name”] in the Kaddish, or referring to God even as “Hashem” [“the Name”]), Judaism has always been cautious of incorporating the superstitions of magic into the religion. God would not want magic- al superstitions to come between humans and God’s holiness; God would want these humans to have rational minds that can connect with God.
Most importantly though, God saw a problem in the process of this construction. The problem? No dialogue! At the surface of our text, literally everybody said the same thing (11:4): “Let’s build us a city!” That is not sufficient dialogue. That is a mere monologue! True holy human interactions involve dialogue: the arts and skills of conversation: listening to each other and talking to one other to form clear, coherent ideas.
God was not selfish in ceasing the construction though. Rather, God was saving humans from their own confused temptation to believe in one of the first of the false idols to which the Bible introduces us: humanity’s own self-importance. It was God’s duty to come down and literally put humans back in their places.
At the end of our story (11:9):
על כן קרא שמה בבל
On account of this, called it Bavel
Wait, who called it Bavel though? It just says “called it Bavel” and leaves us confused… unless we read the rest of the sentence…
כי שם בלל ה שפת כל הארץ ומשם הפיצם ה על פני כל הארץ
for, there, God confused (balal) the speech of all of the earth, and, from there, God scattered them across the face of the earth.
God called it Bavel, eh? But if this name is a play on the words balal (confused) and balah (confounded), then maybe the name would have made more sense as Balel or Baleh—not Bavel. The root of the word Bavel has nothing to do with confusion. There should be a lamed (ל) in the second letter of the name—not a bet (ב).
However, Dr. Robert Hoberman of Stony Brook University notes that “Bavel”, recalling perhaps a language earlier than Hebrew or any other Semitic language known today, would be pronounced in Arabic as “Baab Il;” “Baab Il” would easily translate from Arabic to English as the “Doorway to God.”
God found the falsehoods worshiped by humans and saved us from them by replacing these false idols, our monuments signifying the confusion of humanity, with a path to the true God.
Confusion is no fun, and I also am not sure what has four pairs of pants, lives in Philadelphia, and never rains but pours. However, I do know that, as long as God grants us knowledge, we must never talk ourselves into believing a falsehood. But when we engage in holy and true dialogue with one other, we find ourselves in a clear state of mind as we step closer and closer to the steps of God’s door.