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The Sin of the Builders of the Tower of Bavel

  • Harav Yehuda Amital
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Parashat noach



The Sin of the Builders of the Tower of Bavel

Translated by Kaeren Fish



Our parasha describes the actions of the generation that built the Tower of Bavel, as well as the punishment meted out to them.  At first it is difficult to understand why God was angered by their actions.  Is the desire to band together and to live as a single, unified society really so odious?


The gemara (Sanhedrin 109a) explains that the sin of this generation lay in their construction of the tower.  Three different explanations are offered for this initiative:


They (the people) were divided into three groups: one declared, "We shall go up [to Heaven] and dwell there."  The second declared, "We shall go up and worship other gods."  The third declared, "We shall go up and wage war."


It is important to understand the differences between these groups of builders, all of whom were jointly building the tower, and the specific sin represented by each approach.


As we know, one of the foundations of faith is the constant dialectic between love and awe.  On the one hand, a person must strive to come close to God and "cleave" to Him; he must not remain a "bystander."  At the same time, excessive closeness is not desirable, and may have terrible consequences: "Anyone who draws close to God's Sanctuary will be put to death."  The first group described by the Gemara expresses the desire to dispense with the aspect of awe in their relationship with God; they want to move directly and exclusively to a relationship of love and closeness: "We shall go up and we shall dwell there." 


Today, too, there are religions that seek a connection with God that is built on love alone.  Examples include not only certain eastern religions but also Christianity, and we are well aware of the immoral and murderous actions to which such an approach may lead.


The second group wanted to build the tower in order to facilitate idolatrous worship.  The foundation of idolatry is the belief in powers that are outside of and separate from God.  Even the nations of the world know that there is one central God Who stands above all the other deities that they believe in.  However, as Rambam explains at the beginning of Hilkhot Avodat Kochavim, the problem with the idolaters is that they feel that God is so great, so transcendent and distant, that they have no connection with Him.  Therefore, they prefer to worship forces which are admittedly "lower," but which – for that precise reason – are more accessible, and to which one can feel closer.  Thus, the sin of the second group was their belief that there are forces other than God, and their attempt to worship them rather than their Creator.


The third group sought to "wage war."  Apparently, this group believed that just as there are wars in our lower world, so there are also wars in the upper realms, in God's domain.  The Gemara in Sanhedrin goes on to describe how the punishment for this group was that "they became monkeys and spirits and demons and fiends."  What the Gemara seems to be teaching us is that their punishment was "measure for measure": the people who believed that the upper world is just like the lower world turned into caricatures of the ministering angels, in the form of spirits and demons.  The upper world is not a material realm; it is a world of spirit.  Therefore, there are no wars there, as we experience them in our world.  The people who viewed themselves as belonging to the upper world became part of that spiritual world – but instead of becoming angels, they assumed the form of the "lower" spirits and demons. 


Through this narrative, the Torah lays the groundwork for parashat Lekh-Lekha and all that is to come.  In contrast to these mistaken and misguided perceptions of Divinity in the world, we find Avraham appearing on the scene afterwards.  He answers God's call, "Go forth," and begins disseminating the religion of truth. 


(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat parashat Noach 5748 [1987].)