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Building a Tower of Hebrew

Oct 15, 2015

“The Tower of Babel” by Pieter Brueghel, 1563 (Wikimedia Commons)

וַֽיְהִ֥י כׇל־הָאָ֖רֶץ שָׂפָ֣ה אֶחָ֑ת וּדְבָרִ֖ים אֲחָדִֽים׃

Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.

vai-HEE khol ha-A-retz sa-FAH e-KHAT ud-va-REEM a-kha-DEEM

Genesis 11:1

וַיֹּאמְר֞וּ הָ֣בָה ׀ נִבְנֶה־לָּ֣נוּ עִ֗יר וּמִגְדָּל֙ וְרֹאשׁ֣וֹ בַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְנַֽעֲשֶׂה־לָּ֖נוּ שֵׁ֑ם פֶּן־נָפ֖וּץ עַל־פְּנֵ֥י כׇל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.”

va-YO-mer-u ha-VA ni-v'-NEH LA-nu EER u-mig-DAL v'-RO-sho va-sha-MA-yim v'-na-a-SEH LA-nu SHEM pen-NA-futz al p'-NAY kol-ha-A-retz

Genesis 11:4

An amazing reason for Jews and non Jews to study Hebrew emerges from the lesson of the Tower of Babel found in this week’s Torah Portion.

“The whole earth was of one language and one common purpose… And they said, ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.”

Right after the famous story of Noah’s flood, we read in Genesis 11 about the mysterious saga of the Tower of Babel. The people of Babel join forces to build an impressive tower, but in the process anger God, and are punished tremendously as a result. What is unclear, however, is what was so bad about the Tower of Babel? It sounds nice that the people had one language and were united for a common purpose to build a city and a tower, seemingly positive, constructive acts. Nevertheless, the commentators say that “let us build for ourselves a name” shows their desire to build a monument to humanity to prominently display the achievements of man, without acknowledging the Creator above. Jewish commentators go even further and say that the people wanted to build a tower either to hold up the heavens to prevent another flood, or to fight against God. Their misplaced purpose was to unite man against God. The punishment for the people’s sin of rebellion and failure to acknowledge God as Creator was to be scattered across the earth, their language diversified so they could no longer communicate as one.

The intriguing story of the Tower of Babel is a paradigm for Jewish history. King Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, a building of tremendous glory. Rabbi Yaakov Medan points out that King Solomon, “did not build with the intention, heaven forefend, of using it as a base to wage war against God; on the contrary, he built a house so that God would dwell in it. Its stones did not reach the heavens, but its essence and purpose certainly ascended there.” However, much later, when the Jewish people err and sin, God punishes them with the destruction of the Temple and scattering the Jewish people to the four corners of the earth.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation explains that “unlike the people of the Tower of Babel, the Israelites will remain united as one nation with one sacred language and universal ideal despite their far-flung Diaspora.” Despite being scattered to the four corners of the earth, God will ultimately return His people to His land as it says in Deuteronomy, “If your dispersed will be at the ends of heaven, from there the Lord, your God, will gather you in and from there he will take you. The Lord, your God, will bring you to the Land that your forefathers possessed and you shall possess it.’” (Deuteronomy 30:4,5).

There is one final lesson that ties together the account of the Tower of Babel with the return of the people of Israel to the land of Israel, and that is found in the language of Israel: Hebrew. We know that every word of the Bible has infinite meaning, however, the true essence of the Torah can only fully be appreciated by understanding Biblical Hebrew. When you look closely at the Hebrew words used to introduce the Tower of Babel story, something incredible appears.

Chapter 11, verse 1 says, “the whole earth was of one language and one common purpose.” The Hebrew word for “language,” שָׂפָה (sa-FA), is a key word, like a ‘hyper-link’ which reminds an astute Bible student of another time when “sa-FA” is used, much later in the Torah. In Zephaniah 3:9 the prophet describes how all the nations of the world will have “purity of speech” in the end of days: “For then I will change the nations [to speak] a language of purity so that they all will proclaim the Name of God, to worship Him with a united resolve.” Jewish tradition has always maintained that the “pure language” (sa-FA beru-RA) that Zephaniah promises is the language of Hebrew.

The ultimate purpose of the return of the Jewish people to the Land is to serve God and to correct the sin of Babel, and to speak the one “language of purity,” Hebrew. And in these days of redemption, not just the Jews, but all the people of the world will learn the Hebrew language. Over the last century, the Jewish people have miraculously revived Hebrew, long considered to be a dead language. The famous pedestrian mall in the center of Jerusalem, Ben-Yehuda street is named for the father of modern Hebrew Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.

Moreover, miracle of miracles, today there is a strong and growing Christian interest in learning Hebrew. Many non-Jews are drawn to the original language of the Bible we both share, hoping to gain new insights into their faith. Perhaps the growing interest of Christian Zionists in the Hebrew language is the next step towards our time of redemption described by Zephaniah. Unlike in the generation of Babel, nations are coming together to serve God through the “language of purity.” With Jews and Christians reconciling for the first time in history, may our sense of unity not be for the glory of man, but may we study together the language of Hebrew to build a great tower to the One True God of Israel.

Related Names and Places: Tower of Babel

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