Each year, the cycle of reading the Torah (Hebrew Bible) begins anew. Across the world, in every synagogue the same parasha (section) is read, either specific selections for those synagogues on a triennial cycle of reading, or the entire section. Yesterday we read the section titled Noah. Again and again we do this, reading the same texts. And it is never the same experience, for we are different each year. Year after year, we come to the text from different places in our intellectual and emotional growth. Noah, animals, rainbow, and then in the same section the story of Babel, the building of a tower in an effort to reach the Divine. Same stories, different insights. Each and every year.
This year, something new struck me as I read the story of Babel. The floodwaters have receded; we have read the groupings of Noah’s descendants; we are told that from these groupings, nations were formed and branched out across the earth. And all of these nations speak the same language. Driven by hubris and ego, they set out to build a city and a tower whose top would reach into the sky “to make a name for ourselves” the text tells us, “else we shall be scattered all over the world.”
Well God wasn’t too keen on human beings using the commonality of their language to build a tower to the heavens in an effort to be known far and wide. “If as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose will be out of their reach. Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.”
And that’s where this year’s reading stopped me in my tracks. So that they shall not understand one another’s speech. Coming off a week where Jews in Israel are being stabbed and murdered willy nilly and the world pretty much stays silent, or in the case of one reporter reality is completely distorted, where the phrase I just can’t understand you echoes between spouses, siblings, friends and more, I wondered at this Divine intervention. Don’t think me blasphemous for questioning God’s motivations in this chapter. It is the Jew’s birthright. We are called the People Israel because yisroel means “to struggle with God.”
What a legacy for us all not to be able to understand one another’s speech! The people of Babel were punished for using their commonality of speech to go where they weren’t supposed to go and think thoughts of grandeur and ego they weren’t supposed to think. I sat there pondering this as the Bar Mitzvah boy continued his fluid and confident chanting of the rest of the section. What if we all still spoke the same language? Would we continue to conspire in the wrong direction? Would we have found a way toward understanding one another’s hearts and plights?
We use the phrase “we speak the same language” as short hand for “this person and I, we are in tune with one another. We understand one another.” Sometimes when we “speak the same language” with someone, words are unnecessary. We know what the other is trying to express; we know what the other needs without their having to ask; we know what to do because by saying “we speak the same language,” we are saying the other isn’t really other, but us.
I have no resolution for this column. Nothing as pretty and breathtaking as a rainbow. I wonder at this week’s juxtaposition: in the section that forever joins the rainbow’s glory to God’s Promise that He will never again destroy the world, we seem to be on that path nevertheless because, our speech Divinely confounded, we no longer understand one another and cannot seem to find the way to do so.