City of No Strangers
Why did the people of Babel make their city?
Because they feared they would disband across the earth.
God descended to see what they had done.
He saw that they had accomplished so much
—now they could achieve whatever they set out to do.
So God dispersed them.
He put an end to their city.
God did not want them to achieve whatever they set out to do.
He stopped them before they went too far.
But what did He stop?
Perhaps, unchecked, these people would have become
like the people of Sodom.
God descended to witness Sodom, as he had descended to witness Babel.
He sends angels.
When the angels come, the people of Sodom encircle them
to rape them.
When Lot, Abraham’s nephew, tries to protect the angels,
the townspeople decry him as a foreigner.
Sodom is a city that will have no visitors.
Babel is a city of people who will stay together.
God puts an end to both cities.
Perhaps one—if you take it so far—
gives rise to the next.
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This year, I've decided to focus exclusively on Babel in these emails. I hope you enjoy.
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There are two stories of how the nations came to be.
The first is this:
the children of Noah birthed families that birthed nations that took their places in the world
—each with its own language, in its own island.
In that story we learn of Peleg, whose name means Divided:
for in his days, the world was divided.
We learn of Peleg’s forbearers and his brother and his brother’s children.
We do not learn of Peleg’s children.
For all we know, Peleg had no children.
The second story is the story of Babel.
That story begins when the whole land travels together.
The children of Noah are separate individuals.
They fan out into distinct lives, distinct families, their own islands.
We do not learn of the families, or even names, of the people of Babel.
They build their city so as not to be dispersed across the earth.
The people of Babel are truly one.
After Babel, we learn of the children of Shem.
And we hear of Peleg again: Peleg is Shem’s descendent.
Peleg, we learn, has a son:
Serug, father of Reu, father of Nahor, father of Terah, father of Abraham.
Peleg’s son only appears after we learn of Babel—
as if to say:
In the world of the Children of Noah, Peleg could have no son
and Abraham could not have been born.
Only in the world of the people of Babel
could these things happen.
Abraham’s life is a journey across nations,
something that is not possible in a world of islands,
something that is only possible if all nations, at their root, are one
—like the oneness of the people of Babel.
Abraham will be the father of many nations;
through him, all the nations of the world will be blessed.
What is Abraham’s role, then?
Perhaps it is to awaken the oneness of the world
—the oneness that births Abraham
the oneness that destroyed itself at Babel—
and make it the oneness it could have been,
the oneness it was meant to be.
The people of Babel fear they will scatter across the world.
So they build a tower to Heaven.
They build this tower in a valley, extending the valley to the sky: they reshape the earth.
But God disbands them.
Before Moses dies,
God shares His lesson of how, if the people wish to stay on the Land,
they must listen to God.
God opens His lesson
calling Heaven and Earth to bear witness,
speaking like storms upon the vegetation.
God does not speak of a disembodied technological landscape.
He speaks of nature and history and our lives
and the religious lives we build
as all one world.
In technology we hope to save ourselves
from the world we are given,
from the world God gives us.
But technology will not hold our world together.
The responsibility we take
toward God’s world
will hold our world together.
The people must gather
every fifty years—
the men, the women, the babies.
They gather to hear the king
read the Teaching,
the words of holiness.
God made the Heavens and the Earth and all that is in them
beginning with the words: Let there be Light
and finishing with the words: Let us make Man.
God announced to the world to exist
and the world hearkened,
came to be.
a lone man—
announces the words of holiness
and all of the people gather to hear him,
to be filled with the words,
to be created as a people,
to be created as a world.
See how it is a lone person’s role
to reenact Creation,
to create a world with the word of God.
A community is the universe he creates.
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In Babel the people say: Let us make bricks and burn them in fire.
And the bricks served them as stone, and bitumen as mortar.
And they say: Let us build us a city and a tower to the Heavens
to make a name for ourselves
let us make bricks: nilbenah liveinim
burn them in fire: nisrifah lisreifah.
bricks as stone: liveinah l’even
bitumen as mortar: cheimer l’chomer
They shape the world with word play.
Entering the Land, the people Israel are to stop at two mountains.
They are to set up stones there, and plaster the stones, and write Teaching upon them.
They are to utter curses and blessings atop the mountains:
Accursed is the one who sets a graven image… in secret
Accursed is the one who strikes his neighbor in secret
Accursed is the one who takes a bribe
Up on these mountains, Israel recasts the landscape with words.
Words are how we describe the world
but also how we shape it.
What world will our words create?
A world of our own name?
Or a world of justice when no one is looking,
of goodness in our most secret hearts?
For Parshat Ki Teitzeh
God commands Noah to build an Ark
to carry the animals of the earth.
God commands Israel
to build a Mishkan
to keep Him amongst us.
When you build a new house
build a fence around the roof
lest you bear the blood of one who falls.
The people of Babel
take a different approach to building.
Let us build a city and a tower
to hold ourselves in one place,
to make a name for ourselves.
What are we commanded to build?
A ship to carry the fragile creatures.
A building to hold the holiness of God.
A rail to guard our neighbor’s life.
What will we choose to build?
or a tower to capture our own name?
for Parshat Shoftim
Let a judge not take bribes: for a bribe blinds justice.
Let a king not grow arrogant over his brothers.
Put down the false prophet.
Let the weak-hearted soldier go home
and not dishearten his comrades.
If you find a murdered corpse between cities
and cannot find the murderer,
let the city elders
from the closest city
hold a ceremony, to say:
we did not shed this blood.
And you shall take away bloodshed,
by doing what is right in God’s eyes.
These are Laws
for a time of judges,
an established life
in the Land of God’s promise,
the Land with the eyes of God upon it.
These are Laws of bribe-taking judges
and arrogant kings
and false prophets
and cowardly soldiers
and city elders stumped by murder
near their own cities.
That is the Promised Land.
It is like everywhere else.
But here is the Promise:
a life with the eyes of God upon it;
and you doing what is right in God’s eyes,
under God’s eyes.
is the Promise
of an ordinary life
For Parshat Re'eh
Moses says: When you come to the Land—
Stand upon Mount Grizim. Pronounce blessing for following God’s ways.
Stand upon Mount Eival. Pronounce curse for defying God’s ways.
Do not be like those who worship upon the high mountains and on the hills, and under every leafy tree.
Worship at the place that God will choose.
You are not here to join to the whole universe.
You are here to shape just a few corners of the world—
Infuse those few corners with sanctity, with blessing, with an upright life.
Based on the philosophy of Rav Ezra Bick
for Parshat Eikev
Read a fuller version of this idea in the most recent New York Jewish Week.
You have watched God destroy Pharoah. You have seen what God can do. So do not fear the nations of the Land.
I was terrified at God’s anger at at your sin, at the Golden Calf.
In Egypt, Israel is a nation in its youth.
And so it is in youth that Israel learns to understand that there is no need to fear men.
Because God is more powerful than men.
In the Desert, Israel is older.
Pharoah is in the past. The people are on their way to the Land. They are on their way to standing on their own.
It is then that Israel sins.
It is then that Moses is terrified by God’s anger at Israel’s sin.
This is a story of growing up.
When you grow up, you learn that people are not frightening.
Even powerful, dangerous people are not frightening.
Because everything is in God’s hands.
When you grow up a bit more, you learn this:
that the cause of legitimate fear
is the wrong that we do, ourselves.
Based on a thought of Rav Soloveitchik