Advantages of Babel

Some of you probably remember the 60s hit by the Youngbloods called ‘Get Together,’ with its ringing chorus:  Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another, right now!  That line captures the essence of the 60s ethos of everyone setting aside differences, making love, creating peace, and simply getting on the same page.  After all, how hard could it be?

The implication of the song is that everyone being on the same page is the ideal, what we should be striving for.  The only question is how do we get there?  And this is a refrain we hear commonly in every day life, usually expressed by the phrase ‘why can’t we all just get along?’

Interestingly, and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the Bible seems to take a different approach.  This week the Torah portion tells the story of Noah and the flood.  But tacked on at the end of the portion is another famous biblical story, that of the Tower of Babel.  Curiously, in that text it is just when people seem to actually be ‘getting on the same page’ that God gets upset.  “If,” God says, “as one people with one tongue this is how they begin to act, then nothing they propose to do will be out of their reach.  Let us then go down and confound their speech, so that they will not understand one another.”

The best explanation I have read of this surprising story is the book The Dignity of Difference, by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.  In the book he proposes that what God is really interested in is variety.  God doesn’t want one people with one tongue.  After all, there are about 10,000 different species of birds, over 100,000 different species of trees, and the list could go on and on.  God made a world of variety, of difference, and the trick is for us to first accept that, and then, even trickier, to celebrate it.  To quote a much more recent pop song, lets get that party started!

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