Photo Credit: unsplash

Occasionally the Torah presents us with a story in which it seems to omit the most important details. The story of the Tower of Babel would ostensibly be such a case, since it leaves us unclear as to what the people did wrong and why God decided to punish them. In this case, however, there are some strong hints that allow us to put together different possibilities.  



One of the most interesting readings is that of Netziv (Haamek Devar 11:1-9). He looks at what a tower might be used for, the fact that its builders spoke in unison and that they seemed most concerned that people would spread out far away from them. He then combines these elements together to see the making of a totalitarian regime. That he died almost thirty years before Lenin and Mussolni set up the first totalitarian states makes his ability to see such a possibility prescient and even more fascinating than it would otherwise be. 


Yet all relevance to the outside world notwithstanding, Netziv understood the Torah to be primarily directed at the Jews and accordingly wrote his commentary just about exclusively with Jewish readers in mind. It is true that there would be some Jews who later become enamored with some of the totalitarian regimes or their approach, but they would largely not be his readers either. So what was his message? Before I answer that, let’s take a closer look at what Netziv has to say: 


Netziv’s most critical point is that this Tower regime could not tolerate humanity’s natural diversity and was most threatened by those who would think differently. He further suggests the possibility that this was the very same group which sentenced Avraham to death for that very reason. According to this, Avraham’s crime was not about his monotheism per se. It was enough to just think differently (or perhaps more correctly, express those thoughts) to warrant the death penalty. 


In the notes (Herchav Davar on Bereishit 11:6) to his commentary, Netziv points out that we should not conclude that this tendency only exists in totalitarian states. Intolerance of others can even be found in loving communities. In a brilliant reading of Yirmiyahu 2:33-34, he explains that there were groups in that prophet’s days who boasted about the unity and love they had for one another. Yet the prophet castigates these groups, according to Netziv, for their murder of those outside of the group simply because they were different from them. He concludes, “There can be no praise of peace except [when it is] in such a way that [those that claim to have it] are also careful not to do bad to the one who is not from their group!” 


Though it is a good thing to love those similar to us, there is hardly a need for God to command it. It is something that comes naturally and is really just an extension of our own self-love, which – in proper measure – is also a healthy thing. But the litmus test of our truly following the commandment of loving others is when it is applied to those different from us. For in the same way as those similar to us are an endorsement of who we are, the existence of those who do things differently is a subtle critique. Of course, critique should be at least as valuable to us as endorsement. Yet it requires more strength of character and humility than most of us are often able to muster.  


The latter, of course, is precisely Netziv’s point. He is telling us that when we don’t muster the strength of character to at least tolerate our critics, we are like the men of the Tower of Babel. We might not kill those who disagree with us, but there is certainly a part of us that wishes they would disappear.  


Previous articleA Floating Mikdash
Next articleWorld Opinion is Changing Against Israel
Rabbi Francis Nataf ( is a veteran Tanach educator who has written an acclaimed contemporary commentary on the Torah entitled “Redeeming Relevance.” He teaches Tanach at Midreshet Rachel v'Chaya and is Associate Editor of the Jewish Bible Quarterly. He is also Translations and Research Specialist at Sefaria, where he has authored most of Sefaria's in-house translations, including such classics as Sefer HaChinuch, Shaarei Teshuva, Derech Hashem, Chovat HaTalmidim and many others. He is a prolific writer and his articles on parsha, current events and Jewish thought appear regularly in many Jewish publications such as The Jewish Press, Tradition, Hakira, the Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Action and Haaretz.