In parshat Noach, we read that humanity’s descent into lawlessness moves God to destroy the earth’s inhabitants. But first, He tells Noah, a righteous man, to build an ark on which he and his family and breeding pairs of animals and birds will survive the Flood. Forty days of rain and a yearlong flood wipe out all life on earth, save only those on the ark, who leave the vessel to begin again.
However, between the Flood and the genealogy of the 10 generations from Noah to Abraham, there’s one more brief story — the account of the Tower of Bavel.
The Torah says everyone on earth once spoke the same language. Yet when people came to a valley in Shinar and built a city with a high tower, God took exception to their plan and stopped it by causing the builders to speak different languages and dispersing them to different parts of the earth.
The Torah doesn’t tell us why God found the enterprise so troubling, so the rabbis offer suggestions:
• The people were arrogant, presuming to declare war on God.
• They planned to place an idol on top of the tower and worship it.
• The city represented an excess of greed and materialism.
• They cared more about the building materials than about the workers who endangered their lives to complete the project.
Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, author of the 16th-century work Shnei Luhot HaBrit, suggests a fascinating possibility: that the generation of the dispersion actually intended to serve and respect God; their sin was in wanting to isolate God to the heavens, creating a clear separation of earthly and heavenly authority, with Earth subject to human sovereignty alone. In other words, religion was to be kept in its place.
The maskilim, leaders of the 18th-century “Jewish enlightenment,” made a similar argument. One should be a Jew in one’s home and a mensch — a person just like everyone else — in the street. One’s private religious convictions should not affect one’s public behavior.
But religion restricted to the home and synagogue or church loses much of its meaning. It is precisely religion to which we should look for guidance on the critical issues of the day for our understanding of what is required for a just and compassionate society.
Our country’s most basic principle — that all human beings are created equal — is a religious statement (“endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”), a belief rather than a fact that can be proved by science or deduced by reason.
On Election Day, we will be asked to help determine the priorities for our country, state, and communities for the coming year. How and where should we allocate resources? Which objectives should be stressed and which deemphasized? Which candidates will best serve our needs and those of our fellow citizens?
I know no better way to decide how to vote than to take seriously the Torah’s commandment to do what is good and right in the sight of God (Deuteronomy 6:18).