When it comes to the attempt to build the Tower of Babel, we are left wondering what the actual crime was all about. Because it is not clear cut, many explanations have been offered over the centuries. But whatever its builders did do wrong, one is struck by God’s marked indignation with the project. This is most clearly recorded in 11:6, where God voices exasperation that this is the project that they had chosen for themselves.

Let’s examine the phrase that apparently contextualizes why God would have hoped for a better situation. If we follow Rashi’s understanding, we would translate the first part of these words here as, ”Though they are all one people and of one speech, this is what they have begun to do!?” Based on the midrash in Tanna deBei Eliyahu, Rashi further explains that God’s surprise comes from their lacking to recognize their good fortune, namely being one people and of one language.

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Apparently, God expected the people of that generation to appreciate the ‘gift’ of unity, and that such an appreciation would prevent them from engaging in destructive behavior:  Being so united gave the people of the time the ability to accomplish a great deal more than were they to have been an alliance of different tribes and nations. The latter would have to overcome many cultural and language differences in trying to accomplish any common goal, assuming that they could have agreed to one in the first place. Yet the power that comes from unity can also be harnessed for evil. God took a chance, allowing the people the opportunity to use the blessing of unity for the good. When they squander this tremendous opportunity, God’s response is striking – if a gift is being misused, it is better for everyone that it is taken away.

Indeed, Rabbenu Bachya explains that this is the reason God makes most of us spend so much time working for a living. He says that most people would make bad use of the potentially valuable free time that would otherwise accrue to us – a Jewish version of “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” As with the Tower of Babel, such an understanding reminds us that a misused blessing is not worth having.

People’s response to the remarkable gift of unity should be to serve God more effectively. In such a case, unity would be a powerful tool to further mankind and to further God’s will. Misused, however, it will only bring man’s own destruction closer. On some level, then, a blessing is like almost anything else in the world – its value depends on how it is used. As such, we should remember not to just pray for Divine blessings, but – even more importantly – that we find it within ourselves to use them properly.

{This essay by Rabbi Francis Nataf was prepared with some editorial support by Harry Glazer}

 

 

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Rabbi Francis Nataf (www.francisnataf.com) is a Jerusalem-based educator and thinker and the author of four books of contemporary Torah commentary. His parshah column appears weekly in The Jewish Press. Rabbi Nataf is also the author of, "Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Leviticus"