The most well-known event in Parshas Noach is of course, the Flood which lasted for forty days and nights and destroyed all life. At its conclusion, Noach, his family, and the animals that he brought into the ark, were left to repopulate the world. But that isn’t the only major historical event found in this week’s parsha.
At the end of the parsha, we learn about the famous Tower of Bavel. At that time, everyone in the world lived in the same area and spoke the same language. However, as the population grew, they began to spread out and away from each other. In order to prevent themselves from being spread too far away, they came up with a plan. “וַיֹּֽאמְר֞וּ הָ֣בָה | נִבְנֶה־לָּ֣נוּ עִ֗יר וּמִגְדָּל֙ וְרֹאשׁ֣וֹ בַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְנַֽעֲשֶׂה־לָּ֖נוּ שֵׁ֑ם פֶּן־נָפ֖וּץ עַל־פְּנֵ֥י כָל־הָאָֽרֶץ” “And they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered on the face of the land” (Bereishis 11:3). Hashem observed this construction, became upset with the people, and caused them all suddenly to speak different languages, thereby causing them to spread apart anyway. A few questions arise from this story. Why did they want to build a tower to the sky? Why were they afraid of being spread out across the land? And what exactly were they doing that Hashem punished them?
The basic explanation of this story is found in Rashi. The people didn’t consider the Flood to have been caused by sins, but rather by a reaction of God which would occur every 1700 years regardless of circumstances. In order to stop God from destroying the World again, they decided to build a tower and fight Him. Hashem was upset that the amazing gift He had given them, clear communication leading to total cooperation, was being put to such wicked purposes. So He took that gift away, which resulted in the Tower construction being discontinued and everyone moving to their own areas depending on their language.
The Kli Yakar adds in a number of details which change what the issue was. Like we explained, originally everyone spoke the same language and lived in the same basic area, and was at peace with each other. Once the population expanded and they had to begin moving to other areas, they were afraid that this would lead to war and general strife between each other. They felt once they had different countries, they would have different agendas and values, leading to disagreements and fights. Therefore, they decided to build a huge tower in one location so there would continue to be enough space for everyone to live together without having to move away.
They built the Tower to keep the peace, why were they punished for that? The Kli Yakar explains that it has to do with the phrase “וְנַֽעֲשֶׂה־לָּ֖נוּ שֵׁ֑ם”. Even though it was what they told themselves, the real purpose of this tower was not to keep everyone together, it was a chance for them to make a name for themselves. If the population stayed together, then any greatness a person would gain would be witnessed by the entire world. But if they kept expanding and moving outwards, the ability to show themselves off in front of others would be limited as well.
If they had really intended to build the tower for the sake of peace, they would have been successful. But based on their true intentions, if they had been successful, the exact opposite would have happened. Keeping everyone together when the purpose was to allow some to be better than everyone else would have led to even more strife than if everyone was spread out and different. Hashem came and saw their true intentions and immediately broke them apart. So in fact, causing everyone to speak different languages and spreading everyone all over the world didn’t cause the cooperation to cease, it increased it!
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