We’ve all been impressed at one time or another by the skylines of Atlanta, New York or Chicago, with all of their tall buildings rising into the sky. Ours is a country that is somewhat infatuated with skyscrapers; and for many, they are symbols of a city’s stature and importance.
The tale of the world’s first skyscraper — the Tower of Babel — is the assigned portion from the Book of Genesis that is being ritually read in synagogues throughout the world this morning.
Modern archaeology reveals that about 5,000 years ago, the ancient Babylonians and other Mesopotamian peoples began to build large towers called “ziggurats” that at their tops supported sacred shrines.
The people of the ancient biblical city of Babel, however, intended to build one higher than ever before. They sought to build a tower so high that it would reach up to heaven and into God’s own place of dwelling.
We all know the outcome. Infuriated by their “chutzpah” and outlandish attempt, God destroyed the tower, confounded the people’s speech, and scattered the inhabitants of Babel throughout the world so that that people would never be able to collaborate on such an outrageous and disrespectful project again.
As skyscraper-lovers, it behooves us to take just a moment to consider the reasons why God became so very infuriated with the inhabitants of Babel.
The Bible tells us that, in essence, the inhabitants of Babel were totally self-centered people who were preoccupied with themselves and their own apparent greatness.
“Let us build a city and a tower with its top in the sky solely for our own human glorification and utilization,” the biblical text implies. “In this way, we will surely make a name for ourselves and ourselves alone.”
A rabbinic parable tells us that, ultimately, the inhabitants of Babel became so obsessed with the construction of the tower that its heavy bricks became more important to them than human life itself.
It states that as the tower grew taller and taller, it eventually took over a year to get each of the huge bricks from its bottom to its top. And whenever a brick accidentally slipped and fell, all the people would weep over their great loss; while whenever a worker fell from the tower and perished, no one even seemed to care.
And so, in the end when God came down to see the city and its tower, God just could not countenance a human society that was so very selfish, self-centered and alienated from God’s divine demand for human kindness and compassion in this world.
Two thousand years ago, the rabbis taught that each of us acquires a total of three names during our lifetimes. The first is the one given to us by our parents; the second is the name that other people give to us. The third — and most important of all — is the name that we earn for ourselves in God’s eyes; a name that is a reflection of our character, our moral stature, and our goodly and godly attributes.
Thousands of years later, you and I still have the capacity as human beings to spend all of our time building towers of self-centeredness and glorification — just like the residents of Babel did long ago. By doing so, however, we will never be able to earn the crown of a good name in God’s eyes, which is simply the tallest tower that any of us can ever build.
Rabbi Larry Schlesinger serves Temple Beth Israel in Macon.