Alan Lew presents the Tower of Babel story (Genesis/Breishit 11:1-9) as the third step in an emotional path that also includes the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden and the conflict between Cain and Abel. Exploring this path, as outlined in Be Still and Get Going: A Jewish Meditation Practice for Real Life,* suggests new ways of reading these and other Torah texts and applying their insights in our lives.
Similar language links the three stories, Lew says, citing, e.g., God’s speeches/questions and the recurrence of kedem [east; advance; behind]:
The LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east [mi-kedem], and paced there the man whom He had formed…..He drove the man out, and stationed east of the garden [mi-kedem] of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life (2:8; 3:24)
Cain left the presence of the LORD and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden [kidmat-eden] (4:16)
And as they migrated from the east [mi-kedem], they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. (11:2)
The LORD God called out to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” (3:9)
“Now that the man has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!” (3:22)
The LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” (4:9)
“If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” (11:7)
— all translations from JPS*
“Having the word kedem in common,” Lew writes, “not only connects the three stories under discussion; it also suggests that they form a progression of sorts, that they are points on a time line, a continuum that goes two ways at once. All three stories area about conflict, and the progression seems to be one that moves from the inside out in increasingly widening spirals.” (p.94)
Lew describes Adam’s conflict as internal, wanting the one thing he’s been told he can’t have: the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. “Cain also wants what he does not have — God’s approval. Rather than face his own failure, his own complicity in his disappointment, Cain projects it onto the person of his brother Abel and kills him.” Finally, “the Tower of Babel story completes the progression. Now all of humanity rebels against the way things are, against the world they have been given, the way Adam did individually in the beginning.” (p.94)
We have been given the earth, but we want heaven too. We have been given a certain capacity to control ourselves, but we want to control everything. God seems threatened by these aspirations, as well he should be. Every time we go to war, we do so under the illusion that we an assert control over the world, but instead we invariably unleash a horrifying train of unanticipated consequences….
We are made in the image of God and we are conscious of having been made this way. We were given a will of our won and the power of speech. Used blindly or unwisely, these powers seem to threaten existence itself….So we see God struggling with this power, which he himself must have been the source of, and we see Adam and Eve and Cain and the people of Babel struggling with it as well. (p.95)
Lew concludes this chapter with a call to notice conflict repeating itself in our lives, saying that “patterns are a fairly reliable sign that the cause of the conflict is within….we can accustom ourself to shifting our focus from the external conflicts to their inner roots, and in this way we can begin to break these patterns.” (p.115)
*Please see Source Materials for full citations and more bibliographical details.
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The “Opening the Book” series is presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group pursuing spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.