October 21, 2023 / 6 Cheshvan 5784 Parshat Noach

Charge to Abi Cooperman on her Bat Mitzvah

This is your moment, Abi!  We are so proud of you today, having chanted your Torah and Haftarah so beautifully, and having taught us an invaluable lesson in God’s gift to us of human freedom and free will from the story of the Tower of Babel.  I know personally how dedicated you have been to not only learning to chant your Torah and Haftarah portions under the attentive and caring tutoring of Joel and Melody, but also your many sessions with me parsing the mere 9 verses in Genesis, chapter 11, digging deep into the civilization of Shinar, its intentions, actions, and their outcome.  You chose, in particular, to zoom in on the arrogance of its citizens in falsely thinking that they could replace God.  Moreover, their intention was to undermine God’s desire that humans individually develop a free will….one that reflects the image in God….to only lift up humanity, and acknowledge the self-worth and dignity of each of us, along with our freedom to follow our own paths. 

The story of the Tower of Babel is simple yet profound. On one level, it seeks to “explain” why there are many different languages in the world, especially as the Torah indicates that we all stem from one human family.  Babel is derived from the root meaning “to confuse.” God observed what a powerful force the people’s unity of purpose created at the beginning of the building project—a zealous and iron-fisted power that stood to undermine the values of mercy and compassion that are an integral component of God’s justice. As a result, God confused their language, causing them to speak many different languages so they would not understand each other. By doing this, God thwarted their plans, and, as a result, they scattered all across the face of the earth.

The moral lessons of the story loom larger.

The attempt to build the Tower, literally a “stairway to Heaven,’ would lead the people away from God instead of reaching up to God. The goal of the people was not to glorify God and lift up God’s name but to build a name for themselves.  We know how that went.  Humility, not hubris, is what our Creator wants of us to co-exist on the same planet, especially with the diversity of our languages, symbolic of our differences of faith, culture, and all our personal identities. There is also the fact that our time here on earth is limited. We achieve greatness not by building towers but by participating in God’s project, tikkun olam, fixing the world.

As for the relationship between the builders, according to Midrash, the Babel builders lost their respect for human life in their fervor to scrape the sky: The builders brought bricks up on one side and came down on the other. If a man fell down and died, no heed was given to him. But when a brick fell down, they stopped work and wept, saying, “Woe unto us!

Let us also consider the messages in this story for you, Abi, as a young adult growing into your beautiful self.  The Tower of Babel for its vain builders represented their crowning glory, when, in truth, if what individuals produce is their only measure of self-worth, then they will become slaves to materials rather than becoming caring and responsible peers, family and community members.  You all may be thinking that the collaboration between the Babel builders, ostensibly schooled together towards developing industry and urban infrastructure is key to the success of any society.  But, something went wrong and the work, in the words of the builders, proposed to aggrandize themselves only.  Their drive caused the disintegration of their collaboration into competition and distrust of each other.  Individuality is only as moral and desirable as it accepts and respects each individual. 

And, finally, with maturity comes the opportunity to let our exuberant imaginations transform into real plans for the future, opportunities to pursue our passions, to take our education and our knowledge to higher levels, and to serve others in a way that matters.  The Babel builders had this opportunity as well.  The midrash teaches that the builders did indeed begin with team problem-solving.  For example, they brainstormed about the permanence of their building materials in their blueprints of this ancient skyscraper.  What would hold the bricks together so that the tower would remain standing?  They discovered that burning certain kinds of rock produced a black, liquid substance, which, upon cooling, was so solid that it could hardly be chipped. Yet, as they began the building process, they did not control their impulses and egos, and ultimately lost out, scattered in their isolation and loneliness.  Taking charge of one’s life can assuredly lead to a new sense of freedom, power, and independence, as long as these existential values are built upon the love and acceptance of the whole human family.

 Abi, we need also to acknowledge your care and concern for all creatures, which you have shown to us through your Bat Mitzvah tzedakah project, collecting items needed for an animal shelter.  And I join Abi and her family in thanking each of you for your generous contributions to the animal shelter.  Abi, your act of tzedakah reminds me these animals are God’s creation and serve their holy purpose on earth as well, some to provide companionship and especially those service animals who enable many people to function effectively in their daily lives, and some for indispensable sustenance as cows and sheep.  And here, I share with all of you a heartwarming image from war-torn Israel.  Our nephew’s kibbutz on the Gaza border was decimated in the October 7 massacre.  He is a survivor, evacuated to Eilat with the rest of the kibbutz survivors.  Their dairy cows, left behind, are being milked and fed daily by Israeli soldiers. 

Abi, may you always be a moral builder, for yourself and for others. May you expand your curiosity in all things, may you always take into consideration your impact on your fellow human beings and on the earth itself, and, Abi, always know that your Judaism will guide you and your Jewish community will embrace you at each step on your way.  Mazal tov, and may you go from strength to strength!