Come, let us go down and there confound their language, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:7)
What is the connection between Adam’s existential state of aloneness and the tragic social isolation resulting from the Tower of Babel, when one universal language is replaced by 70 languages, leading to bedlam and dispersion?
Let us return to the story of creation and God’s declaration: “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a help-opposite for him.” (2:18). When Adam fails to find his “help-opposite” among the animals, we are told: “The Lord God cast a deep sleep upon man…took one of his ribs [and] made a woman, and brought her to the man.” (2:21-22)
Why is the birth of Eve surrounded with this poetic quality? Why does her creation differ radically from that of all other creatures?
If Eve had been created from the earth like the rest of the animals, Adam would have related to her as a two-legged creature; she would have ended up as one of the animals to name and control. Her unique “birth” marks her unique role.
Earlier we read that “God created the human being in His image; in the image of God He created him, male and female created He them.” (1:27) “Male and female” suggests androgynous qualities, and on that verse Rashi quotes a midrashic interpretation that God originally created the human with two “faces,” Siamese twins as it were, so that when He put Adam into a deep sleep, it was not just to remove a rib but to separate the female from the male side.
God divided the creature into two so that each half would seek completion in the other. Had Eve not emerged from Adam’s own flesh to begin, they could never have become one flesh again.
Awakening, Adam said of Eve, “Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.” (2:23) In the next verse, God announces the second basic principle in life: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” (2:24). “Leave” does not mean reject, but it does mean that one must be mature and independent in order to enter into a relationship of mutuality with one’s mate.
One of the goals of a human being is to become one flesh with another, and this, the truest of partnerships, can be achieved only with someone who is really part of yourself, only with someone to whom you cleave intellectually and emotionally. If a relationship suffers from a lack of concern and commitment, then sexuality suffers as well. The Torah wants us to know that for humans, sexual relations are not merely a function of procreative needs, but rather a profound expression of mutuality.
Rashi interprets the verse, “You shall become one flesh” to mean that in the newborn child, mother and father literally become one flesh. In the child, part of us lives on even after we die.
The entire sequence ends with the startling statement, “And they were both naked, and they were not ashamed.” (2:25) Given the Torah’s strict standards of modesty, how are we to understand a description that seems to contradict traditional Jewish values?
I would suggest a more symbolic explanation: Nakedness without shame means that two people must have the ability to face each other and reveal their souls. The Torah wants husband and wife to remove garments that conceal truth so they are free to express fears and frustrations without the “shame of nakedness.”
The first global catastrophe, the flood, struck when the world rejected the ideal relationship between man and woman. Rape, pillage, and unbridled lust became the norm. Only one family on earth — Noah’s — remained righteous. Now, with the Tower of Babel, whatever values Noah attempted to transmit to future generations were forgotten.
One language means people understand each other; when one became 70, metaphorically, existential and social loneliness prevails.
The Tower of Babel represents a new stage of depravity, not sexual, but social. People wanted to build great towers, not for the sake of Heaven, but for the sake of materialism; the new god became splendid achievements with mortar and brick. As they reached greater physical heights, they forgot the human, inter-personal value of a friend, a wife, a life’s partner.
The total breakdown of language fits the crime of people who may be physically alive but whose tongues and hearts are locked. It was no longer possible for two people to become one flesh, to stand naked without shame. Existential loneliness engulfed the world and intercommunication was forgotten.
The Tower of Babel ended an era in the history of mankind, and the social destruction it left behind could be fixed only by Abraham. His message of a God of compassion who wishes to unite the world in love and morality is still waiting to be heard.