By Shlomo Riskin
“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 which results from the Tower of Babel, when one universal language is replaced by seventy languages, leading to bedlam, confusion and dispersion?
To answer our question, let us begin by returning to the story of creation and G-d’s declaration: “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a help-opposite for him” (Gen.2:18). When Adam fails to find his ‘help-opposite’ among the animals, we are told: “The Lord G-d cast a deep sleep upon man and while he slept, He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh in its place, and of the rib, which the L-rd G-d had taken from the man, He made a woman, and brought her to the man” (Gen. 2:21-22).
Why is the birth of Eve surrounded with this poetic quality? Why does her creation differ radically from all other creatures? The answer is that had Eve been created from the earth like the rest of the animals, Adam would have related to her as a two-legged creature. Even if she walked and talked, she would end up as one of the animals to name and control. Her unique ‘birth’ marks her unique role.
In an earlier verse, we read that “G-d created the human being in His image; in the image of G-d He created him, male and female created He them” (Gen. 1:27). “Male and female” suggests androgynous qualities, and on that verse, Rashi quotes a midrashic interpretation that G-d 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 side from the male side.
G-d 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 with, they could never have become one flesh again.
Awakening, Adam said of Eve, “Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh” (2:23). His search was over, and what was true for Adam is true for humankind. In the next verse, G-d announced 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. (How many divorces can be traced to crippling parent-child relationships!)
One of the goals of a human being is to become one flesh with another human being, and this, the truest of partnerships, can only be achieved 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 an expression of mutuality on a profound level. Hence, in contrast to the animal kingdom, humans are not controlled by periods of heat; sexuality is ever-present. Thus Nahmanides speaks of one flesh in allegoric terms: through a transcendent sexual act conceived in marriage, the two become one. 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 which 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 without external pretense. Frequently, we play games, pretending to be what we’re not, putting on a front. The Hebrew word ‘beged’ (garment) comes from the same root as ‘bagod’ – to betray. With garments I can betray; wearing my role as I hide my true self. The Torah wants husband and wife to remove garments which conceal truth, so that they are free to express fears and frustrations, not afraid to cry and scream in each other’s presence without feeling the “shame of nakedness.” This is the ideal ‘ezer kenegdo.’
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.
What exactly happened when one language became seventy is difficult to understand. Yet, metaphorically, one language means people understand each other. With their ‘ezer-kenegdos,’ existential and social loneliness is kept at bay as they become one in love and in progeny.
The Tower of Babel represents a new stage of depravity, not sexual, but social. People wanted to create a great name by building 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. According to the Midrash, when a person fell off the Tower, work continued, but if a brick crashed to the ground, people mourned.
Thus the total breakdown of language fits the crime of people who may be physically alive, but whose tongues and hearts are locked –people who are no longer communicating with each other. It was no longer possible for two people to become one flesh and one bone, to stand naked without shame, to become ‘ezer-kenegdos.’ Existential loneliness engulfed the world and intercommunication was forgotten. The powerful idea of one language became a vague memory.
The Tower of Babel ended an era in the history of mankind, and the social destruction it left behind could only be fixed by Abraham. His message of a G-d of compassion who wishes to unite the world in love and morality is still waiting to be heard.