John Lennon and the Tower of Babel
Translated by Netzach Sapir
Imagine – John Lennon
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living for today
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
This timeless song touches the heart of many. John Lennon shares his vision of a unified humanity living together with nothing to fight about, where war is a thing of the past and people have more in common than not, where everyone speaks the same language and there are no more misunderstandings – in a word: peace. The song is powerful because the vision is powerful; we all share the deep longing to return to the original, natural state of the world, before all the mistakes and divisions. After all, we all come from the same father and mother. As the Mishnah in Sanhedrin (4:5) expresses, “Therefore Humanity was created with a single being…for the sake of peace between the creations, so that one can not say to another, ‘my father was better than your father.’” By opening with the story of the common origin of Humanity, the Torah ought to pre-empt any possibility of racism or prejudice. But John Lennon’s song, which remains in the realm of the imagination, shows us how far the world is from the acknowledgement that we all are brothers and sisters. The world is rife with war and conflict, hatred and separation. The vision of brotherhood seems farther away than ever. A study of the story of the Tower of Babel can help us come to terms with our divided reality and its consequences.
The Tower of Babel – Megalomania or Cowardice?
“And behold, all the land was of one language and one mindset… and they said, ‘Come, let us build for ourselves a city and a tower that reaches the heavens, and we will make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed across the whole land’” (Bereshit 11:1,4).
These verses describe the first revolt of history. Humanity gathered together and decided to invest all their efforts in the building of a tower. Why specifically a tower? What did they intend to do with it?
Rashi describes the revolutionary movement as one of megalomania: “They came together under one council and said, “Let us ascend to the heavens and make war on it” (Rashi, Bereshit 11:1). The humans understood that though individually they are powerless in the face of the creator, working as team in a united effort they can be mighty. The tower is an assault on the heavenly domain!” G-d, in response, disperses humanity and confuses their language, thwarting the builders’ designs.
Rashbam, on the other hand, interprets the uprising differently. He sees the building of the tower as a sign of humanity’s fearfulness and their hesitancy to realize their full potential, not as an attempt to overstep the limits of their power. “According to the text’s plain meaning, what was the sin of the generation of the dispersion? ... Because G-d commanded [humans], ‘Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and occupy it,’ but they chose a place for themselves to settle, ‘lest we become dispersed across the land.’ Therefore he decreed that they be spread out.” (Rashbam on Bereshit 11:4). According to the Rashbam, G-d is directing humanity to greatness. He commands them to go out to all corners of the world, to develop different languages, societies, nations and cultures, from the Eskimos, who learn to survive in the world’s coldest climates, to those who dwell in deserts or labor in their fields. But humans are afraid to fulfill their mission. They gather together, in one city, in one language, in one tower, and refuse to accept their duty. G-d responds by pointing them back in the right direction: “And G-d dispersed them from there across the surface of the Earth…therefore the place was called Babel, because there Hashem mixed (Balal) the languages of all the world, and from there Hashem dispersed them across the surface of the earth” (Bereshit 11:8-9). The message that arises from Rashbam’s understanding of the story is the opposite of the meaning that Rashi sees in it. Rashi’s understanding creates the impression that ideally, Hashem would have been happy to have people living as one, but humanity blew it by uniting against G-d. But Rashbam’s view is surprising, fascinating and meaningful: it is not the ambitious desire to conquer the Heaven which condemns the tower, rather it is human passivity and fear to conquer the Earth which provokes divine intervention.
Through Rashbam’s understanding, we see that the demographic and geographic dispersal of humanity is not a punishment, but a way to help humanity achieve its purpose. The dispersal creates a wealth of languages and cultures. The tower is called “Babel” because following the mixing up of the languages, there was such cultural difference between people that they simply could not understand one another: “One man could not hear the language of his fellow” (Bereshit 11:7). The purpose of this confusion was to break the national-cultural uniformity: “And G-d said, ‘they are one nation and one language, and see what they have started to do – now there will be nothing to stop them from anything they choose to do’” (Bereshit 11:6). The humans wanted to live together as one, but Hashem wanted people to split up and expand over all the world.
Today, we feel the devastating consequences of the separation of mankind: war, hatred, tension and suspicions. What was G-d looking for in the dispersal of the nations? Why was it so important that the unity be broken?
Overcoming Big Brother
The Kabbalistic metaphor for creation gives us a new lens through which to view the story of the Tower of Babel. The universe, according to kabbalah, was originally a perfect unified harmony of creation. The “vessels,” the physical world, received the divine light and were filled by the flow of divine abundance. But eventually, the flow of divine abundance became too great for the vessels and they shattered. The divine light which they had contained burst out in every direction, and to this day those sparks of divine light are hidden throughout reality, imprisoned in shells of darkness. This metaphor is one of the basic foundations of Kabbalah and chassidut. Everything which exists in the world has a spark of divine light hidden within it, and it is our job to seek them out, to rescue them from the dark shells which imprison them, and, in so doing, to raise them up. The goal of humanity in this world is to fix the vessels, to raise up the sparks, and to bring the sparks back together, thus re-unifying reality.
The story of the Tower of Babel can be understood through this metaphor. The initial phase of the united humanity is parallel to the unbroken vessels receiving and containing the Divine light. The breaking of that unity and the division of the people across the earth corresponds to the breaking of the vessels. In the historical reality in which we live, nations and cultures are splintered and at odds with one another just as the sparks of light are dispersed and lost, hidden in a broken world. How awesome and powerful is the notion that in order to repair our fractured reality and return the world to its original state of unity, the spark of holiness hidden in every single nation and culture must be revealed and elevated.
This understanding is deeply rooted in Kabbalah, and one hundred years ago, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook (Orot Hakodesh, 2, p. 539-540) already saw the significance of the social changes that were beginning to occur around the world. He saw that many nations were beginning to see their place and their story as part of the bigger story of humanity at large. According to him, “[Once], every community and group was sealed within its own area, and there was no direct influence on any person except from his immediate surroundings, and thus everybody, in their simplicity, on both an individual and a communal level, thought the whole wide world was just like them, and did not differ anywhere from their immediate physical and spiritual surroundings.” Though the “unique special ones, who have great insight, have always known the secret of the united spirit and have known that the spirit of man is a general spirit,” in these new days, “the social awareness has grown and expanded, everyone feels that his kind is not the only [kind], and is not utterly encompassed in one area alone. He acts in and is acted upon by a wide range of different things, from different and strange surroundings.”
If this is the case, if our ultimate purpose is to rejoin in unity, why did we have to go through the terrible experience of the division of reality? What was the purpose of thousands of years of nations seeking each others’ blood? What was the reason for the breaking of the vessels?
It could be suggested, in keeping with Rav Kook’s words, that before the shattering of the vessels, the whole was unified, but was also uniform. The dispersion and distance enabled each nation to develop in its own path, and so we have arrived today at immense cultural variety and human diversity. This is the primary wealth of existence. Strict uniformity and conformity, totally devoid of any individualistic opportunity or expression, tends to characterize brutal dictatorships and totalitarian regimes. In his classic opus “1984,” George Orwell portrays the “unity” that Big Brother seeks to instill as a nightmare. This is how the Netziv (Ha’emek D’var, Bereshit 11:7) sees the story of the tower of Babel. He reads the opening verse, “And behold the whole land was of one language and one mindset” (Bereshit 11:1), to mean that the purpose of the tower was to be a type of “big brother” to ensure that everybody would think the same way. With everyone building the tower, it would be easy to keep everyone in one place and to make sure that no one could depart to a different land, where they might think different thoughts.
The deep message of the story of the Tower of Babel is that G-d does not desire a world where everyone is the same. G-d directs us to discover our own unique identity, both individually and as cultures and societies. The great challenge is to protect our individuality in the context of a communal life, to preserve our personal uniqueness while living in cooperation with the diversity of humanity.
The Rabbi and the Swami
In his book The Soul of the Story, Rabbi David Zeller tells the story of his spiritual journey and of the interfaith groups in which he participated, bringing a new and meaningful Jewish message to the nature and the purpose of such meetings:
When I stood on the stage and taught about Jewish spirituality and meditation, Swami Vishnu interrupted:
“Aha, Rabbi, that is exactly what we teach in the Yogic tradition. You see? We are really all one, and all can be learned here, from the Yoga.”
“No Swami-Ji, we are not ‘one.’ We are all different. We are all part of a greater, overall, One. But this greater One, if it is to work in harmony, depends on each piece doing its own part, serving its own purpose: unity through diversity. The Kabbalah teaches that humanity is compared to a body. My body is whole and healthy because every organ does its own job, and performs it in harmony with the rest of the organs. Every religion, every nation, every culture, is like an organ in the body of humanity. But in order for humanity to come together in a complete, unified harmony, every part must carry out its specific role, and acknowledge that vitality of the role the others play as well. Every nation has been selected to be a specific organ, to carry out its unique role, for the good of the world at large. Today, we suffer greatly from nations who believe, ‘this is the only true path and there are none beside it, everyone must accept it and be just like us.’ We must embrace the differences between us, for the sake of the entire world” (trans. from Hebrew, Masa B’Shvil Halev, Efrat 2008, p. 222-223).
Later in the passage, Zeller points out that “if we were to search through medical writings, we would find that there is one example of a lack of divisions and boundaries and total unity – it’s called cancer. There are no limits, no divisions, no boundaries – all is one – but it is cancer, and the whole system will die because of such unity.” In interfaith communication, there is the temptation to blur difference and seek similarity. New age rationales tend to have a certain unstated assumption that all religions are essentially the same, and that it would be possible to create a single, universal, eclectic religion. Zeller’s analysis, as a person committed to Mitzvot and also a person dedicated to maintaining a connection of mutual respect and learning with many people who think differently from himself, has a message for our generation: A person’s uniqueness is not revealed through negating the other. Authentic Judaism, as defined through its Halacha and philosophical boundaries, has what to offer the world, but it also has what to receive from it.
Receiving Without Losing My Self
If we return to the beginning of the parsha, we can note an interesting similarity between the generation of the flood, and the generation that followed it, the generation of Babel. Professor Benjamin Ish-Shalom posits that the generation of the flood sought to flee the world of divisions and definitions in search of total unity. Essentially, the generation of the flood wished to turn back the wheel of creation and return to the primordial state of oneness. They did away with the notion of morality in general, and sexual morality in particular: there is no notion ‘mine’ or ‘yours,’ everything is “chamas,” crime or immorality. The natural world responds in kind: the waters above (the heavens) and the waters below (the sea) also erase their boundaries, and they return to meet again, creating the flood. Rav Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin writes in several places about the wasted potential of the generation of the flood, what they missed out on. The generation of the flood could have been the generation of the redemption, for they understood one great truth – all comes from the same source, all is equal. But an equality which seeks to erase difference not only fails to redeem the world, it brings it to destruction.
The people of the Tower of Babel had the same goal as the generation of the flood: to achieve oneness through erasing the differences. They were of “one language and one mindset.” This is also the source of the desire to build a tower which blurs the difference between Heaven and Earth. But the existence of the world is dependent on “tzimtzum,” “contraction,” and definitions, which by their very nature emphasize difference.
“Who is wise?” asks the Mishna in Pirkei Avot (4:1), “one who learns from everybody.” But there is a constant tension between my desire to guard my own independence, and my ability to give and receive in my interactions with others. We must seek the balance within this tension. A person must know how to define his own boundaries, to be able to say who he is and what he believes in, because if his answers are vague or uncertain, he runs the risk of losing his identity, and one who loses his individual identity also loses the ability to recognize anyone else’s. A person must be focused on his own place. Only when one is able to give an honest and confident answer to the question, “Who am I?” will he be able to see others for who they are. The same is true of societies and nations: only when we know with certainty who we are will we be able to have peace with our neighbors.
“We desire all the spiritual good the world has to offer without being dragged after every revolution that foreign influences bring. How do we draw from it all only the good and the true, only the honest and the proper?” (Orot Hakodesh, 2 pg 540). Rav Kook is speaking about Judaism in the global village, a question which points to an unavoidable and irreversible reality. It is especially applicable today, in the internet age, where every house has its own portal to access thoughts and beliefs of differently-thinking people the world over. Every religion and every nation expresses something unique, and Judaism is among them. We must open our hearts and learn from one another to receive each other’s light and be released from the shells of darkness. In the vision of the End of Days, the world returns to speaking in a “clear language.” Perhaps a “clear language” is not a single language, but a language where everyone is understood, helps his fellow, understands him and accepts him, as in the prophecy of Tzefaniah, “For then I shall turn the [languages of the] nations into a clear language, for all to call in the name of G-d, to serve him in unity” (Tzefaniah 3:9).