I can’t imagine many people in our community that are not familiar with the main story in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Noach. The story of the flood has been told and retold throughout the generations via traditional Bible stories to the more creative children’s books to the arguably more offensive blockbuster motion picture. We even sings songs about the “arky-arky” built to survive the “floody-floody” that holds the animals brought on by “twosies-twosies” and depart by “threesies-threesies.” It is embedded in our hearts and minds with similar fondness or recollection to the story of Jonah and the “Whale” (or “Big Fish” as my rabbi used to remind our congregation of the real translation from Hebrew.)
Though this is certainly on the “Favorites” list for many, when we arrive at this week’s reading, I’ve always been intrigued by the final story which recounts the perilous tale of the Tower of Bavel, or Babel as it is more commonly known. I think part of my fascination stems from my study of European history and art, particularly the images painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Just to refresh us all, the story is set at a time where everyone on Earth (presumably all descendants from Noah) spoke the same language. In their arrogance, they elected to build a city with a tower whose top reaches the sky “to make a name for ourselves, else we shall be scattered all over the world.”
In the end, as we know or can easily hypothesize, this is exactly what occurred. God saw what they were doing, condemned their actions and use of communication for unworthy, “vainglorious” and defiant ends, and not only scattered them all over the face of the Earth, but also confounded their speech so that they could no longer understand one another.
As we are both joyfully and painfully aware, our words mean something to everyone else who hears or reads or even infers what we communicate… or do not communicate. For most, a simple acknowledgement, be it “Hello,” a friendly smile or nod, handshake or hug, makes the difference between a positive feeling of validation or a sense of importance and a negative reaction of being ignored or rejected. As human beings we tend to rely upon others’ feedback, in some cases quite intimately. Musicians communicate via both written notes that instruct them on what sounds to make and in the actual music they produce and the message and feeling it evokes. Certain teams cannot be successful without cooperative language, be it signal-calling or physical signs, designing and transmitting plays, or even offering words of encouragement to one another. The communication of parents and teachers with children and pupils via spoken and written words, gestures, and the giving and withholding of praise and affection influence self-esteem in development.
On the contrary, if our messages are not clear, if they are designed or perceived with mal-intent, if they do more harm than good, then they warrant punishment, as we learn from the story of the Tower.
As we make our way into this year, may we practice the art of thinking before speaking and choosing our words wisely.
B’virkat Shalom – With Blessings of Peace,