The new residents of the land of Shinar have grand architectural plans. They want to build a tower “with its top to the sky.” But it’s not just about the ediface itself; it’s a pursuit of accomplishment and acclaim. “Vena’aseh lanu shem–so that we make a name for ourselves, ” they said (Genesis 11:4). Of course, as we know from this story near the end of this week’s Torah portion, Noah, God foils their designs, literally and figuratively, by mixing up their languages, so they can’t communicate well enough to cooperate in the building project.
What’s so bad about wanting to make a name for oneself? Some of our traditional commentators have ideas. For example, Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno (Italy, 16th century) wrote that the word shem, “name,” is code for idolatry–they planned to put a big monument or idol on top of the tower. That would certainly explain why God would choose to disrupt their plans.
There’s another interpretation by a lesser-known interpreter, Rabbi Yosef Bekhor Shor (France, 12th century), that gives the tower-builders a bit more credit. He wrote: “They wanted the name of the tower and the city to spread far and wide, thinking that ‘if we leave home, we’ll know how to get back.’ Anyone asked for directions will know the way, because the city will be well-known, and the tower will be visible.” In this view, the tower is just a tall beacon that helps travelers from Shinar find their way home. What’s wrong with that?
Is it more important to make a name for oneself far from home, or close to home? This is a question I’ve pondered a lot this week. I’ll explain further on Shabbat morning.
Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Tov,
Rabbi David Wise