“Vayomru Hava Nivnah Lanu Ir Umigdal Virosho Bashamayim Vinaaseh Lanu Shem,” “And they said, ‘Let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens and make a name for ourselves’” (11:4)
The story of the Dor Haflaga is certainly a puzzling one. It is unfathomable that a generation who lived at the same time as the survivors of the flood sinned so greatly and rebelled against God Himself.
Of course, the idea that the purpose of building the Migdal Bavel was to rebel against Hashem is not obvious from the text; rather it is derived from the word Bashamayim. The Ibn Ezra points out that elsewhere in the Torah there is a reference to “Arim Gedolot Uvetzurot Bashamayim,” “great cities (in Israel) fortified to the heavens,” which would seem to show that Bashamayim is just a way of referring to a great height. The Ibn Ezra then suggests something entirely different. He maintains that no one would have been stupid enough to challenge Hashem; rather the tower was meant to be a center for all civilization. He probably takes this idea from the next words in the Pasuk, “lest we be dispersed throughout the land,” as this would be a way for the Dor Haflaga to stay united. Interestingly, this idea appears to give Migdal Bavel a positive spin, as it would have united all the people in the world. Thus, it is odd that the Dor Haflaga were punished instead of being rewarded for their efforts.
The Ibn Ezra goes on to explain that in fact the Dor Haflaga’s goal was not necessarily a good one. While unification can be productive, it can also restrict growth. Without different backgrounds and viewpoints, there is no balancing factor to maintain perspective and objectivity. The Dor Haflaga intentionally attempted to inhibit the growth and development of society, and, as the Rashbam points out, were thus disregarding the commandment from Hashem of “Peru Urevu Umilu Et Haaretz,” to have children and populate the land. Hence, the confusion of languages and the dispersal of people part of were not a punishment but part of a correction. Diverse languages and areas make reunification almost impossible, thus ensuring variation among people and the development of different cultures.
However, there still must be some basis for the statement of the Midrash that the builders of the Migdal Bavel meant to rebel against Hashem. The answer may be found in the preceding Pasuk, which says that the people decided to use bricks instead of stones and lime as mortar. Rashi explains that this was necessary because there were no stones in Bavel. However, it is odd that the Torah would bother to discuss the materials used to build the tower. In addition, it seems that the Pasuk is in an odd place; it is as if the bricks caused the city and the tower to be built.
Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld explains that the fact that they were using bricks was a tremendous thing in itself. It signified a great technological breakthrough; for the first time ever, people could create their own building materials if none were available. This led to a general feeling of power and control over their own fate. The Dor Haflaga were so carried away in this power trip that they believed they were able to do anything, including defeating Hashem.
Rav Sonnenfeld adds to his point by noting that the second Pasuk in the Perek states that the Dor Haflaga lived in “a valley in the land of Shinar.” It seems that if they wanted to build a tower as high as possible they would have started from a very tall place. However, they felt that they should start from a low place in order to accomplish their feat entirely on their own, without any help. Had they built on a mountaintop, they would have been utilizing a “contribution” of height from Hashem who created the mountain.
Once they had developed such overconfidence, they became wholly dedicated to their cause. The Brisker Rav notes the extent to which the people became carried away by pointing to the Rashi’s comment that when the languages were confused the people still tried to continue building. However, their confusion led to frustration and eventually murder. The Brisker Rav says that the reason for this is the inherent nature of man’s evil. Once one has resolved to sin, nothing will deter him even when his original means fail. Thus, those involved in the construction were so set on the completion of their project that they did not think about abandoning it. Instead, they acted irrationally and started to kill each other. In addition, even the murders themselves did not halt their work, and Hashem had to disperse everyone. This episode shows the spiritual depths to which a person can sink once his mind is made up to sin and the lack of thought and consideration that is possible when one sins.
This point is also made by R’ Yehonatan Eibeschutz, who asks how it is possible that these people thought they could reach the heavens. He answers that the people expected to build a tower high enough to pass the Earth’s gravity, making them weightless and allowing them to fly up to confront Hashem. It is amazing that they did not bother to consider important things like the time and effort required to make such a tower, the possibility that they would not be able to survive in space, or the impossibility involved in defeating an all-powerful being. The lack of forethought demonstrates that they were so set on rebellion that they did not consider the outcome. Similarly, any action that we do can have unexpected consequences. For example, a few words of Lashon Hara can ruin a Shidduch, but there are many cases where a few kind words have dissuaded people from committing suicide. Thus, Migdal Bavel is a lesson in considering the consequences of our actions, which can have a great impact on others, as well as on our own behavioral patterns.