At the end of this week’s Parashah we are told of the sin of the Dor HaFelaga (the generation of the Tower of Babel). The question arises as to the nature of the sin they committed? The Pesukim state “VaYehi Chol HaAretz Safah Echat UDevarim Achadim,” “And it was, that all the land was of one language and one speech.” (BeReishit 11:1) This certainly does not seem to be something bad. Immediately thereafter, the people say they will build a tower into the heavens and “VeNaaseh Lanu Sheim,” “We will make ourselves a name.” (11:4) Again this does not seem like a sin. In fact in the next Parashah, Lech Lecha, Hashem tells Avraham “VaAgadla Shemecha,” “I will make your name great.” (12:2) If Hashem made Avraham’s name great then it is certainly not bad to have a great name. So why was the Dor HaFelaga punished for being enthusiastic to become famous?
Perhaps the answer lies not in their goal of claiming a great name for themselves, but in their methods. Their goal was to claim fame, but the manner in which they wanted to do it was to build a tower to rebel against Hashem. As Rabbanit Sharon Rimon explains, we derive that the building of the tower was to rebel against Hashem because the Pesukim which describe the intentions of the builders are juxtaposed to those describing the building of the tower itself: First the Passuk states that the people desired to make a great name for themselves, and immediately thereafter, the Passuk describes the tower as reaching the heavens. Therefore, we see that the Torah hints to us that they will be claiming fame by rebelling against Hashem which is why the tower is up to the heavens. Thus, the Dor HaFelaga didn’t commit any sin in desiring a great name for itself, but rather sinned in the manner in which they tried to gain this fame, via rebellion.
The Torah is teaching us a very important lesson: the purpose and the use of an object are more important than the object itself. Many goals have tremendous positive value if acquired and used correctly. However, if not properly used, the achievement actually develops negative and damaging characteristics. For example, fame, if abused, leads to immorality; but if used to teach people the proper path via influential gravitas, it becomes a very positive attribute. Additionally, earlier in the Parashah we see Noach planting a vineyard to make wine. Wine clearly has a positive attribute, as evidenced by the Mitzvah to drink wine on Yom Tov. Unfortunately, Noach used this wine to become drunk instead of for a Mitzvah. This misuse and abuse of the wine is clearly a transgression. Similarly, the desired abuse of fame by the Dor HaFelaga was a sin. Their error was in failing to use fame to accomplish Hashem’s goals, and instead, seeking fame by climbing to the heavens and rebelling against Hashem.