by Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff
Do you believe in second chances? According to the Torah, God does.
After the earth became corrupt and God determined “to wipe them (all flesh) off the earth” (Genesis 6:13), God gave Noah a heads up and told him to become maritime savvy and build an ark so that his family and the animals could start over.
After the flood, God established a covenant with the earth and every living creature (9:13-17).
It appeared, at least for the moment, the worst was over. The Torah lists the progeny of Noah who constitute a genealogical listing of the nations that were known to the Israelites at that time. Our parashah emphasizes that the nations were unified with one language.
But then things started to fall apart. The settlers of Shinar, an area of Babylonia that is northern Iraq today, undertook a building project.
They declared “Come, let us build a city with a tower that reaches the sky (v’rosho vashamayim)” (11:4). The tower may have resembled the ziggurats the Mesopotamians erected in their flood plains, towers that mimicked natural mountains.
Towers, in and of themselves, are not necessarily bad. But these were not simply towers built for some utilitarian or aesthetic purpose. These towers were motivated by an overweening, giant-size ambition. Their goal, declared the builders, was to “make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over all the earth!” (11:4). The midrash suggests that the builders intended nothing less than to ascend to heaven, set up idols as high as they could reach, and wage war with God.
They engaged in labor practices that would make Idi Amin squirm. And how did they treat the workers who built the tower? The midrash suggests that if a brick fell the builders were distraught. But if a human being fell, they hardly noticed. They were so focused on building that they would not allow a pregnant woman who was making bricks to stop in order to give birth. When the newborn arrived, they would place the baby in a sheet and tie it around her body while she continued to labor at her task (Louis Ginzburg, The Legends of the Jews, Louis Ginzburg, [Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1954, Vol. 1, p. 179).
Rabbi W. Gunter Plaut taught us that the tower “symbolized all empire building, corruption, arrogance, craving to erect monuments, desire for fame.” The Torah, A Modern Commentary, Rev. Edition [New York: Union for Reform Judaism, 2005], p. 78).
The structures we build and how we use them reveal volumes about who we are and what our priorities are.
On April 24, 2013, more than a thousand garment workers died in the catastrophic collapse of a factory building in Bangladesh.1 The result of shoddy materials, primitive safety standards, and corrupt management, it was one of the worst industrial accidents in modern times. As I write and you read this d’var Torah, some of us might be wearing clothing manufactured in that plant. The disaster brings to mind other tragedies caused by unsafe working conditions, such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that took place in New York in 1911: there workers died because the exit doors had been padlocked by owners who would stop at nothing to fill their coffers.2
The Torah expects us to establish and enforce building codes. In Deuteronomy 22:8, we are warned that when we build a new house, we should make a parapet or low railing around the roof, lest someone fall from the roof, and his or her blood be on our hands. That’s a far cry from the protocol at the building sites described here of the Tower of Babel, Bangladesh, or New York City.
A few years ago, I visited Barcelona and toured La Sagrada Familia, an elaborate gothic church designed by the noted architect, Antoni Gaudi. Under construction since 1882 and reaching over 560 feet, it may not be completed for another half century. Meanwhile, throughout the city, thousands suffer in poverty.
Sometimes the very buildings where we pray to God are more testaments to those who build them than they are to God. If God were doing a cost analysis of social needs, where do you think God would place the priorities? How important would be breadth and height, and how important the moral code embedded in that project?
When our synagogue built its new learning center, one of the facilities that surprised some people was, of all things, the shower! A shower-not for the rabbi, cantor, or educator-but for the homeless who lodge with us six weeks a year, so they would be able to shower in the morning before going to school or to a job interview.
What ideas can you come up with that would make the homes, offices, or synagogues we build more in keeping with our moral standards and would enable those structures to better serve society? How do you feel about the “over-the-top” residences rising in many locales while large segments of our fellow citizens lack basic affordable housing?
According to Torah, God took one look at the tower and said, “. . . this is just the beginning of their doings; now no scheme of theirs will be beyond their reach!” (Genesis 11:6).
Clearly, our tradition favors humility over hubris, compassion over conceit.
Judaism teaches that material possessions are neither good nor evil. Wealth is neither a moral value nor a sin. Structures are neutral vessels. It all depends on what we do with them. If we build them according to a moral code and use them humanely, they may serve God. If we make of them an idol, an edifice of self-worship, while ignoring basic human needs, might we once again face the wrath of God as did the generations after Noah?
Looking ahead to next week’s portion, Abram departs for the Land that God will show him. How well has that Land been developed and how will it be used in generations to come?
1. See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/10/bangladesh-factory-collapse_n_3249808.html
2. See http://www.aflcio.org/About/Our-History/Key-Events-in-Labor-History/Triangle-Shirtwaist-Fire
Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff , past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and of ARZA, is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, New Jersey. He is vice-president for special projects at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and author of When Elijah Knocks, A Religious Response to Homelessness, (Behrman House) and Reform Judaism, A Jewish Way of Life, (Ktav).