Towards the end of this week’s Parsha, the Torah describes the sin of Migdal Bavel, in which the people said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed across the whole earth” (11:4). The Midrash quotes an interesting piece of Aggada on this Pasuk, stating that one third of the tower burnt, one third sunk into the ground, and the last third is still here today – so tall, the Midrash says, that it makes palm trees look as tiny as grasshoppers. As with many such Aggadot, this seems to be a figurative Midrash; we can be sure that this one’s authors did not actually see or know of remnants of this tower, and therefore must mean to say something deeper [Rabbi Jachter notes: the remnants of the tower are claimed by some to remain to this day in Iraq and might have been seen by Chazal; see Rav Elchanan Samet’s essay on Parshat Noach in his first volume pf Iyunim B’farshi’ot HaShavua]. What could the Aggada be trying to teach us by telling us the fate of the tower?
Rav Nissan Alpert has a novel approach to this dilemma. He links the above Midrash with another Midrash on the phrase three Pesukim earlier, “And the earth was of one language and of ‘Devarim Achadim.’” Rav Alpert quotes three common explanations on this last phrase. According to the first, “Devarim Achadim” simply means “common words,” referring to the people’s one common united government. The second explanation interprets this phrase as “sharp words,” because the people rebelled against Heaven by placing a sword atop their tower to challenge Hashem if He would ever try to intervene in this world again. According to the last explanation, they put a sword on top of the tower to hold the sky up so it should not fall and cause another flood, as they believed this was simply a naturally recurring problem.
The tower that burnt, Rav Alpert says, represents the first explanation. The philosophy of outright battling against Hashem no longer exists; everyone recognizes that such a feat is impossible. The second explanation’s ideal of a united government has never been achieved, with each attempt since the government of Migdal Bavel failing, yet the idea keeps reemerging. This concept is therefore like the tower that is submerged. Rav Alpert adds that it will never be achieved until the arrival of Mashiach.
The last tower, however, unlike the other two, still stands. Noach preached for 120 years that a flood would come if the inhabitants of the world would not do Teshuvah, and just as he said the flood came and destroyed all but Noach and his family. Yet the generation following the flood still said, “It must be because of natural reasons.” Hashem performs miracles that are so great that when we look down from their heights the palm trees look like grasshoppers – and yet people miss them. This last “tower” of human stubbornness and refusal to see Hashem’s hand is as strong today as ever.
While we do not see Noach-scale events on the average day, Hashem constantly performs more subtle but equally great miracles. Although we hear this message all the time, few remember to actually put it into practice. Start small – every morning try to find a moment, maybe even while on your way to Minyan, to reflect on how you managed to do everything you have done so far that day, from going to the bathroom to having a roof over your head. To put it another way, what’s the real reason that stops the sky from falling?