Thursday, October 27, 2011

What Are You Babbling About?

Parashat Noah

1 Cheshvan 5772

October 28-29, 2011

“If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.” – Genesis 11:6

In addition to the story of the flood, the portion of Noah also shares the story of the Tower of Babel. The story goes something like this:

After the flood and a number of generations, everyone on Earth spoke the same language. Together they decided to build a city with a tower so tall that it would reach the heavens. God was not comfortable with this, so with assistance from angels, God made it so that the people spoke different languages, and God then scattered them around the world. By virtue of no longer being able to communicate with one another and being so spread out, the people stopped building the city.

It’s pretty obvious that the question this narrative is attempting to address is: how do we account for the fact that human beings live all around the world and speak different languages, if God saved Noah’s family from the flood alone? Wouldn’t they (and their descendants) have all spoken the same language and lived in the same part of the world?

The wisdom of this story is immediately applicable in today’s world. Think about how much of our strife and struggle is due to an inability to effectively communicate with one another and work together to solve common problems!

The verse quoted above really resonates with me, as I do believe that if all the citizens of the world were to come together as one people with one language, then the sky would be nowhere near the limit of our accomplishments. Maybe due to our existing reality, the “sky is the limit,” but the verse suggests that we have the potential to reach much higher...

How do we make sense of the concept of coming together “as one people”? Our history as Jews has shown that we are often not welcomed into non-Jewish society, and that even when we have had autonomy and freedom, we have chosen to live separately in our own communities. Not only this, but we as Jews have become so intent on drawing lines of exclusivity – for example, a primary one being who is a Jew and who is not (with different interpretations from different people/movements) – that we can’t even combine as Jews alone to be “one people” – let alone with non-Jews. Can we break down coming together as “one people” into the simple concept of “love your neighbor as yourself,” which Rabbi Akiva felt was the most important principle in the entire Torah?

How do we deal with the concept of having “one language?” Must we understand it as being literal? Is there no room for English, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian and others? I would argue that having the ability to communicate clearly and effectively is the major issue. And yet, I think you could make a strong argument that differences in language and how it is used often result in unintentional conflict, and if everyone in the world spoke the same language, that our ability to communicate with one another might be enhanced. How would we choose which language would be the common language? Mandarin Chinese is the language spoken by the largest number of people in the world currently. Are you ready/willing to learn a language that is not your native tongue for the betterment of the world? What if it were as part of a mass movement?

The Torah makes it clear that we as humankind have the ability to make this world whatever we wish of it, if only we would join together and effectively communicate with one another. Let’s start with baby steps: in the week ahead, befriend someone you normally wouldn’t. Consider registering in a course to study a new language. Pride yourself on being a citizen of the world, and let’s work together, as humankind, to make this world heaven on earth for us all.

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