SALT - Wednesday, 28 Tishrei 5778 - October 18, 2017

  • Rav David Silverberg
            The Torah in Parashat Noach tells the story of Migdal Bavel – the city and tower which the people of the time built, for which God punished them by having them speak different languages and dispersing them.  One of the approaches taken to explain this ambiguous story appears in the Gemara, in Masekhet Sanhedrin (109a), where it is suggested that this story actually involved three different groups.  One group planned simply to reside in the city and tower, a second intended to use the tower as a site of idolatrous worship, and a third saw the tower as a means of ascending to the heavens to wage war against God.  The Gemara proceeds to infer from the narrative that the different factions were punished in different ways.  The third faction, we are told, were punished for their desire to “fight” against God by being turned into various forms of wild beasts and evil spirits.
            How might we explain this peculiar punishment brought upon those who wanted to wage war against God?  Why was this chosen as the appropriate fate for these people who foolishly thought they could wage a successful battle against the world’s Creator?
            One possibility is that the Gemara here speaks in allegorical terms of those who “wage war” against God in the sense of rejecting religious belief on the grounds that religion is detrimental to mankind and to the world.  The Gemara here uses the story of Migdal Bavel as a metaphor for people who see themselves as courageous warriors defending humanity from the harmful effects of religion.  Their message is that the belief in a Creator who demands worship and subservience poses danger to the world and exacts a heavy toll from which they seek to save mankind.  This is the “battle” that Chazal describe the third group of builders as waging.  The Gemara teaches us that these “warriors” are mistaken, for in truth, it is Godlessness that poses danger and causes harm.  Sincere belief in a God who has high demands and expectations of His creatures, and holds them accountable for their conduct, leads to the sort of restraint, discipline and self-control that people need to exercise in order to live peacefully and meaningfully.  Although the war against faith might be presented as a war to defend humanity, it is, in truth, harmful for humanity, as genuine and proper religious commitment results in greater morality, sensitivity and kindness among the people of the world.
(See Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg’s Yalkut Yehuda, p. 114)