In the antediluvian world, evil abounded. Theft, rape and general lawlessness was the rule. With the waters of the flood, evil was washed away and ostensibly all that remained was Noah and his family. This was a new start, a fresh beginning. The powerful image of holocaust surely left a scar on the collective consciousness of the survivors, and this feeling was certainly communicated to future generations. A world rededicated to God and righteousness should have resulted from the epic upheaval. Sadly this is not the case.
Instead of utopia, we are astounded to read of the rebelliousness of a subsequent generation:1
And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. ... And they said, Come, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach to heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men built. And the Lord said, Behold, the people are one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have schemed to do. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from there upon the face of all the earth; and they left off the building of the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confuse the language of all the earth; and from there did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth. (Berishit 11:1-9)
While the text is not clear as to the exact transgression,2 the Divine response leaves no doubt regarding the problematic behavior which they had displayed. According to the Talmud there were different groups which had become coalesced and were working together even though they had different goals:
R. Jeremiah b. Eleazar said: They split up into three parties. One said, 'Let us ascend and dwell there;' the second, 'Let us ascend and serve idols;' and the third said, 'Let us ascend and wage war [with God].' The party which proposed, 'Let us ascend, and dwell there' — the Lord scattered them: the one that said, 'Let us ascend and wage war' were turned to apes, spirits, devils, and night-demons; whilst as for the party which said, 'Let us ascend and serve idols' — 'for there the Lord did confound the language of all the earth.' (Sanhedrin 109)
Whatever the sin was, it is clear that the plan was not spontaneous. Someone brought these people together, and encouraged them to work on this common project. Rabbinic tradition leaves no doubt as to the identity of the instigator; it was a man named Nimrod.
We are introduced to Nimrod in the previous chapter:
And Kush fathered Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty one. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; therefore it is said, As Nimrod the mighty hunter before the Lord. Bereishit 10:8,9
The description is both unique and obscure. What is the Torah trying to tell us when it says that he was the first "mighty one"? What does it mean to be a mighty hunter before the Lord? While the basic understanding of the text would imply physical prowess, Rashi opts for a more conceptual definition. Rashi says that Nimrod was a manipulator who ensnared people with his words. Rashi is based on the following Midrash:
Was then Esau a Cushite? [He is so called] because he acted like Nimrod. Hence it is written, Like nimrod a mighty hunter before the lord (10:9): it is not written, Nimrod [was a mighty hunter], but like Nimrod: just as the one snared people by their words, so did the other [Esau, i.e. Rome] snare people by their words, saying, ' [True,] you have not stolen, [but tell us] who was your partner in the theft; you have not killed, but who was your accomplice in the murder.' (Midrash Rabbah - Bereishit 37:2)
The point of reference in the Midrash was Esav and the hated Roman Empire. The message of the Midrash is that the behavior of Rome has its antecedent in Nimrod. The hated Romans were seen as just as ruthless and as devious. Nimrod's deviousness is what amalgamated the various factions. Nimrod was a demagogue, using his words to bring them to battle, to help him fight a war that he could not win.
The very name Nimrod has the word "rebel" as its root. It was his sinister misanthropic character that brought these people together on an impossible mission. To wage war with God, man would need extremely long arms indeed. Apparently Nimrod convinces the people that God's dominion is limited to the ground and his power or vengeance can only be displayed with rain and via floods. Therefore if they build a tower they will avoid the flood, and attack God in the heavens.
Nimrod was an innovator; he was the first person to form a kingdom.3
And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. Berishit 10:10
Judaism has had a long ambivalent relationship with monarchs; a good king can galvanize opposing forces in quest of a common goal, and increase the quality of life immeasurably. A bad king can be catastrophic; he can destroy an entire civilization in an attempt to fulfil his quixotic dream.
Nimrod is the first person to lead others astray. As we saw above the Sages are not united regarding his attraction, perhaps it was brutish strength, and he ruled by fear. According to other sources Nimrod uses sleight of hand to impress his followers. The Zohar, in a passage that explains the phenomenon of being a "hunter before the Almighty," states:
He was a mighty hunter before the lord; wherefore it is said: like nimrod a mighty hunter before the lord. Truly he was a man of might, because he was clad in the garments of Adam, and was able by means of them to lay snares for mankind and beguile them. R. Eleazar said: 'Nimrod used to entice people into idolatrous worship by means of those garments, which enabled him to conquer the world and proclaim himself its ruler, so that mankind offered him worship. He was called "Nimrod", for the reason that he rebelled (marad=rebel) against the most high King above, against the higher angels and against the lower angels.' R. Simeon said: 'Our colleagues are acquainted with a profound mystery concerning these garments.' (Zohar Bereishit Page 74a)
These clothes represent the sin and rebellion of Adam and how appropriate that Nimrod would want them. According to the Midrash these garments are one day taken by Esav, the spiritual progeny of Nimrod:
Behold, I (Esav) am at the point to die. Another interpretation is that Nimrod was seeking to slay him on account of the garment which had belonged to Adam [and which Esau now possessed], for whenever he put it on and went out into the field, all the beasts and birds in the world would come and flock around him. (Midrash Rabbah - Bereishit 63:13)
While Adam gave names to the animals, and Hevel cared for the animals, Nimrod and Esav are hunters of animals. The Ibn Ezra explains that Nimrod took these animals and offered them to God, and therefore the text speaks of Nimrod as being a mighty hunter "before God." While later scholars have found difficulty attributing apparently positive gestures on the part of Nimrod, it has been explained that this was a part of his manipulation. If others were impacted by the flood and now were in fear of God, Nimrod can show that he too is God-fearing. If we take this logic one step further, we can posit that his original stated intention of the Tower was to build a shrine for the service of God.
At once they said: "Come, let us build a city, and a tower, and let us make us a name." This place, they said, shall be to us a center of worship, and no other; so "let us build a city and a tower"; what need is there for us to go up to the regions on high where we cannot derive any enjoyment? Behold, here is a place all made ready for us. (Zohar, Berishit Page 75b)
The project soon took on a life of its own, and even if human lives were lost along the way they were quickly justified as casualties of the mission. The individual lost his identity as the society forged ahead in its goal of reaching the heavens – and perhaps extracting vengeance against God for His horrific deluge. Unlike Adam who manifested his image of God, which is identified with his ability to speak, by giving the animals names, Nimrod rebels. He misuses speech, slaughters animals and diminishes his own image of God, as victims of his policies perish and pile up.
The Midrash describes this scene in the harshest of terms: when a person working would fall and die people would forge ahead, however if a brick were to fall and shatter people would shed tears for the loss. A society where inanimate objects took precedence over people is a corrupt society. Possessions were dearer than human life. The Divine spark in each person was no longer perceived.
The people of that generation were united, but in pursuit of a corrupt goal. This type of unity is superficial. Judaism passionately believes that each and every person is created in the image of God, when we discern the image of God of one another we can then join as a group on a profound level and create a society greater than all the component parts. However, when we completely ignore the individual and his uniqueness, the society that will be formed will be loathsome.
God punished that generation measure for measure. If they could not appreciate individual difference on a deep level, God made the differences on a more superficial level, by causing the confusion which resulted from the mixing of languages. Now when people would see others they would discern external differences.
When the Midrash discusses the unity of the generation it speaks of the antipathy directed toward two beings that did not fit in; God and Avraham:
And of one speech (ahadim): that means that they spoke against two who were unique [lit. 'one'], viz. against Abraham who was one (Ezek. 33, 24) and against The Lord our God, the Lord is One (Deut. 6, 4). Said they: 'This Abraham is a barren mule and cannot produce offspring.' Against ' The Lord our God, the Lord is One': 'He has no right to choose the celestial spheres for Himself and assign us the terrestrial world! But come, let us build a tower at the top of which we will set an idol holding a sword in its hand, which will thus appear to wage war against Him.' (Midrash Rabbah - Bereishit 38:6)
For Jews the ultimate expression of unity is the acceptance of one God. When we say the Shema we are accepting upon our selves the existence and unity of God. We bind these words on our arms and wear them as an emblem on the center of our heads. We place it on our doorposts to remind us when we enter or leave. God is one, God is completely unified. Man who is obligated to walk in the path of God and follow His deeds needs also to manifest "unity". However this is something which an individual can not accomplish as an individual.
Rabbi Soloveitchik once pointed out that the Talmud entertains the possibility of God anthropomorphicly donning tefillin. The question according to the Talmud is what words are found in God's tefillin?
R. Nahman b. Isaac said to R. Hiyya b. Abin: What is written in the tefillin of the Lord of the Universe? — He replied to him: And who is like Thy people Israel, a nation one in the earth. (Berachot 6a)
The Jewish people as a community reflect God's oneness. This is achieved not by ignoring man's Divine endowment, but by focusing on it. A community that recognizes that all individuals are unique and possess the Divine spark is a holy community, and reflects God.
The generation of the dispersal led by Nimrod, did not appreciate the uniqueness of human beings. A lost brick was mourned; not a wasted life. They saw people as having less value than another brick in the wall. Their punishment was dispersal and different languages, which ironically causes so much strife and battles today. Xenophobia rules – those from far away places are feared, those who speak a different language are scorned. Significantly the role of the messiah will include the ingathering of the exiles. And the messianic age will include all peoples returning to one language and service of God
For then I will convert the peoples to a clear language that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve him with one accord. From beyond the rivers of Kush my suppliants, the daughter of my dispersed ones, shall bring my offering. Tzephania 3:9,10
At that time I will bring you back, and at that time I will gather you; for I will make you a name and a praise among all the people of the earth, when I restore your captivity before your eyes, says the Lord. Tzephania 3:20
We await the day when the day when once again mankind is unified and speaks one language. On that day the words will ring out that God is one.
And the Lord shall be king over all the earth; on that day the Lord shall be one, and his name one. Zecharia 14:9
- The Midrash remarks how the later generation did not learn from the earlier one. Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 38:4: R. Judah b. Rabbi commented - The later generations would not learn from the earlier ones; viz. the generation of the Flood from that of Enosh, and the generation of the Separation from that of the Flood [from which it was but two years removed. (return to text)
- The Midrash makes this observation: Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 38:6 "And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech" (ahadim). R. Leazar said: That means, of veiled deeds, for the deeds of the generation of the Flood are explicitly stated, whereas those of the generation of Separation are not explicitly stated. (return to text)
- There was an "upside" to his kingdom as well: Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 38:6: Yet of the former not a remnant was left, whereas of the latter a remnant was left! But because the generation of the Flood was steeped in robbery, as it is written, They remove the landmarks, they violently take away flocks and feed them (ib. 24, 2), therefore not a remnant of them was left. And since the latter, on the other hand, loved each other, as it is written, "And the whole earth was of one language," therefore a remnant of them was left. (return to text)