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What inspired the roving tribes of Ancient Mesopotamia to build the Tower of Babel?
“They said to one another… Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves…’” (Beraishis-Genesis 11:3-4)
At first glance this seems to be a declaration of social consensus: “They said to one another…” However, the Talmud records an oral tradition telling the story behind the story.
The Talmud explains that the true driving force behind this spontaneous eruption of mass initiative was a man named Nimrod. Nimrod was the one who wanted to make a name for himself. Nimrod, one of history’s first evil despots, wanted to establish a dictatorship that would last forever.
Just as despots have throughout history, Nimrod presented himself as the voice of the people: “Let us make a name…” Did Nimrod really care whether anyone “made a name” but himself? Of course not. But the same nationalistic lies that worked for Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, to name just a few, worked for Nimrod as well:
“He seduced them with smooth talking, that their honor and name would be great upon the earth, and [convinced them that] for this purpose it was worth rallying all resources, material resources and spiritual resources.” (Talmud Chulin 89a)
Nationalism above all? Nimrod knew the trick because he invented it. And historically, boy, did it work.
Nationalism Versus Individuality
Adolf Hitler: 17 million deaths. Josef Stalin: 23 million deaths. Mao Zedong: 49-78 million deaths. That’s what mindless nationalism looks like.
It all began back in Ancient Mesopotamia with the building of the Tower:
“When a human being fell [from the tower] and died, they would not pay any attention, but when a brick fell, they would sit and cry, ‘Woe to us, when will another arrive to replace it?’” (Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer)
When the individual is less important than the nation, cruelty is inevitable. In contrast, the Jewish viewpoint values individuality as inherently precious:
“Anyone who destroys a single soul…it is as thought he has destroyed an entire world.” (source in article)
“Beloved is man because he was created in the image of God.” (source article)
Torah asserts that just as God is infinitely unique, so is every human being infinitely unique and therefore of infinite worth. Torah society, government, and legal systems exist in order to protect and support the individual in fulfilling her unique potential. In essence, the nation is nothing but a means of expression for the individual.
Stop “Building the City”
See whether this sounds familiar: “It is thus necessary that the individual should come to realize that his own ego is of no importance in comparison with the existence of his nation; that the position of the individual ego is conditioned solely by the interests of the nation as a whole ... that above all the unity of a nation's spirit and will are worth far more than the freedom of the spirit and will of an individual. .... We understand only the individual's capacity to make sacrifices for the community, for his fellow man.” (Adolph Hitler, 1933)
Sound familiar? In Nimrod’s world the only individual who counted was Nimrod. Human beings were the means, and the bricks of his great Tower were the ends. The individual meant nothing and the nation meant everything. This is not who we want to be.
“And Hashem dispersed them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city.” (Beraishis-Genesis 11:8)
Take home message? Stop “building the city” and start listening to each other. Stop looking at other people as cogs in your little machine. Don’t be Nimrod. Wake up to the unique and precious individuality of those around you.
Based on Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
by Braha Bender