If you’ve ever been responsible for a group of children or, let’s be honest, even just a single child, you know that eerie, nervous feeling that comes when their playspace is too quiet. At first, there’s that moment when you think, “Wow, it’s so quiet! How nice that the children are playing so well and aren’t screaming at me or each other.” Then, seconds later, the panic sets in when you suspect that the quiet was the sound of mischief and the kids trying to hide the fact that they were doing things you might not approve of. On the one hand, it’s great that they appear to be working together on something. On the other hand, what if what they’re working on is something they shouldn’t be doing?
This dilemma is what I imagine God feels this week in Parshat Noach. Parshat Noach details the misbehavior of the people who inhabit the earth in this pre-Judaism time. We read about Noah as a beacon of hope among the despicable people of his town. God instructs Noah to build the ark, put the animals on it, and escape destruction under God’s protection during the flood. Noah’s story is capped off with a covenant between God and humankind to never again destroy the world. Unfortunately, the beauty of the rainbow is quickly tainted as we learn of the misdeeds committed by a new civilization in trying to reach up closer to God.
God has no sooner hit the reset button on humanity than the people get “quiet,” working together to build a tower upwards. On the positive side, this tower, the Tower of Bavel, was the result of the people uniting for a common purpose. However, that purpose was also filled with the wrong intention. Instead of building something that would move them forward as a society, they built upward out of a self-centered need to touch the heavens.
Consequently, God scrambles the languages of the people so they can’t understand one another, and thus chaos ensues and they can’t really figure out how to work together on the tower or any other project.
The ability to communicate is critical for productivity, for us as individuals to move forward together. What we learn from Parshat Noach is that it’s not enough simply to work together. The work has to be a common cause for good. When we build together, work to understand each other and communicate clearly we can change the world for good. When we approach these group efforts with the right intentions, we can literally change the world.