Part 3 – The Shul Story
In our community, the final step in the conversion process is to stand before the congregation, deliver a teaching on the week’s Torah portion, and lead the sh’ma.
This week, we’re in Parashat Noach, the portion of Genesis that contains the story of the flood that lasted forty days and forty nights. Another story tells us about the generations after the flood, about how they all spoke one language and decided to build a tower monument to themselves. In the story, God thwarts their plans by making them all speak different languages.
I swear I didn’t remember this story was in this Torah portion when I first suggested today as the date for my conversion. Me, a linguist, forty. As Rabbi Susan says, you don’t choose your portion. Your portion chooses you. So here’s my teaching on the Tower of Babel story from Genesis, Parashat Noach.
We thought we were special. We really did.
Back when we were in Shinar, we could all understand each other, and everyone got along. But there were stories from before of big cities, as different from each other as night and day. Cities that fought each other year after year.
We had to be special because that never happened to us. There weren’t any settlements besides ours. The whole world was new.
After a few years, people began pushing out to the horizon. Soon they were arguing about how to divide the land and the water, even what to call the fruit on the trees.
We got scared, and the elders met for what seemed like weeks on end. Then one day, they had big news. They told us we would build a city, with paved streets and marketplaces and houses for everyone.
And in the middle of it all, we would build a tower with its top in the heavens, so high that people in even the farthest settlements would never forget where they belonged.
We wept with relief. We tore the straw out of our donkeys’ mouths to bring it to the brickyards. We dug up clay from the riverbed with our bare hands.
It sounds strange now, but I remember those days as some of the best ever. We sang songs and told jokes as we worked day and night, packing clay and carrying bricks into the heart of our new city. We ate like horses, and our bread had never tasted so good.
The elders appointed overseers for us. They were family, and they ate and worked alongside us.
One of them was a cousin from my mother’s side. I remember the day I passed him on a freshly laid street. We had laughed together the day before, but on this day, he was hunched over, his eyes on the ground as he walked.
“Good morning, cousin,” I called out to him. He raised his head, his face twisted up with worry, and grunted in reply.
The elders had grown impatient. The work was not going quickly enough, they said. Every day, there were new outposts beyond the horizon, permanent villages even, with strange names no one had ever heard of.
We’d work harder, we told them. We’d build the tower even higher.
Then one day I saw my neighbor’s father-in-law. He was very old, but he worked with us the whole time, raking hay at the brickyard and pouring water for us. I was so thirsty that day, but when the old man went to hand my cup to me, he dropped it.
I got angry. I cursed him and called him names. I knew before the last word left my mouth that I’d gone too far. I could have told him I was sorry, but I didn’t. I turned away and went to find more water.
I think that was the day people stopped smiling. We worked, we went to sleep, we woke up sore and exhausted. And still the word came from the elders. Faster. Bigger. Higher.
Soon the tower was so high that it took the bricklayers almost an hour to climb to the top.
I remember when the first of them died. He was just tired and lost his footing. That’s what we heard from the people who saw it happen.
I was standing next to my cousin when the man’s body hit the ground. We didn’t know what the sound was at first, but within minutes, we did. My cousin asked if the man had been his son, his brother, his father-in-law. When it turned out to be none of those people, my cousin looked up at the tower again, then down at the ground. Then he told everyone to get back to work.
I hated the tower that day. I hated it more the larger it got. Even the elders and overseers hated it, even as they started beating people who wouldn’t work, or couldn’t work, or did something that set everyone back. Another one of us died, then another, then another.
One day, I dropped an armload of bricks and an overseer started hitting me. Didn’t I know how precious those bricks were to the city? That’s what he yelled as he beat me.
My cousin watched the whole time and said nothing, but when the overseer was done with me, he helped me get to my feet, and then he said this: It will all be worth it in the end. No one will forget our oneness, he told me.
But by this point, no one even talked about the other settlements any more. No one had left the city in months except to dig for clay.
People who couldn’t work started disappearing or showing up dead on the streets. When the ovens ran out of wood, anything that could be burned was thrown in. Our grain, the beams of our houses, even the bodies of the dead. When the valley gave up its last handful of clay, people were made to march over the mountain to the next valley. Many never came back.
I ask myself every day if I could have done something to stop it all. But by the time we woke up to what the tower had become, none of us wanted to admit how empty it all was. How foolish we’d been all along.
Everyone knows what eventually happened.
I was on my way up the tower. An overseer was scolding a woman who had fallen down. She was so thin. We all were. Her hands and knees were bleeding, she was crying, and all the overseer could do was scream at her.
And then, in an instant, I couldn’t understand any of his words. It was as if he’d swallowed his own tongue. All I could do was stare at him, and then he started screaming at me instead.
I can’t understand what you’re saying, I kept telling him.
He got angrier. He starting beating me. I pleaded with him to stop. Please, stop, I cried.
The poor woman’s voice came from behind him, but she was talking gibberish too. The overseer stopped hitting me. He was breathing hard, a crazed look in his eyes as he just stared at us.
And then others came down the path. Dozens, then hundreds, all crying out, all speaking gibberish.
We went crazy. We ran through the city, grabbing anyone we could, pleading with them, “Do you understand me? Can you understand what I’m saying?”
No one could. People were crying, tearing their hair out. We scattered into the countryside in search of someone, anyone who could understand us. I walked for two days straight and found no one. By then, there were so few of us that I never saw anyone else from the city.
Somehow I found my way here.
I was so sick with hunger and grief that I don’t remember how or when I got here. All I remember is waking up in the home of strangers.
I wept when they gave me food and water. I wept when they bathed me. I wept because it had been so long since anyone had been kind to me.
When I was strong enough, they took me outside and pointed off into the distance.
There, on the horizon, was the tower.
“Babel,” they said.