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21 Cheshvan 5762 - November 7, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
Migdal Bovel and the Twin Towers

by Rav Y. D. Rosenberg

Many commentators have had difficulties understanding the sin of the generation of Migdal Bovel, since the Torah did not state it explicitly. We wish to offer an explanation, based on the Kli Yokor, with some amendments.

The Mishna says in Pirkei Ovos that an assembly of the wicked is bad for them and bad for the world, and their dispersion is good for them and good for the world. With the righteous it is the opposite. The Mishna does not state why. The evil inherent in a meeting of the wicked stems from the conflict of aims between them: each participant wants to fulfill his base desires and get the maximum that he can out of this world, be it money or physical pleasure. Each participant only needs his fellow-participant as a means for achieving these goals, and consequently their coming together will give expression to everything base and ugly in man's soul. Hence such an assembly is an evil occasion for the wicked themselves too, because of all the lies and deceit that will result from it.

Due to the very nature of the wicked it cannot be otherwise, for good character traits are founded on self- restraint, concessions, and humility. One cannot even begin to acquire them any other way. People with opposing interests do not give in to each other, because someone who has made it his aim to get the most that he possibly can out of this world does not have a concept of renouncing his interests.

An assembly of the righteous, on the other hand, who aim to lead a spiritual life by promoting the virtues hidden deep inside the soul underneath heaps of garbage, is fundamentally different. Such a gathering will reveal man's superior power: his potential to give in (the fundamental quality), the characteristics of moderation and restraint, which are among the foundation stones of the righteous man's character, modesty, an essential prerequisite for superior behavior in this world, and so on. We shall not elaborate on these positive qualities in this context, but they can be witnessed amongst those superior people who pursue a supreme goal as a way of life. A gathering of such people is wonderful for them and wonderful for the world, for the soul's positive features become revealed both in private and in public. All this is by way of introduction.

Chazal tell us that the generation of Migdal Bovel wanted to distance themselves from Hakodosh Boruch Hu. The brick industry developed by that generation in Bovel was an expression of the desire to become liberated from the yoke of their Creator. They wanted to be in a position where they would no longer require His assistance. They would exploit materials already existing in the world -- they would make do without stones, "And they had brick for stone, and slime for mortar." They did not want to be "dependent" -- that was their sin in essence.

When the starting point is the drive to become distant from Hakodosh Boruch Hu, it is a meeting of the wicked in which everybody is committed to his own interests and impulses and to achieving the maximum pleasure possible. This fundamental point is hinted at almost explicitly in the words of the posuk: "And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech." The only common factor between the world's inhabitants was a common language, whereas everything else divided them: they were "of one speech," they spoke one language but everybody heard something else. Everybody had his own interests, and perceived another person's words through the lens of his own interests. It was one language, but it was understood in contradictory ways.

Societies throughout the world have become Americanized, leading a life filled with pleasure, lightheartedness, and shallowness. The one factor uniting the world today is the English language, because there is actually no American nation. It is a conglomeration of refugees; a group of people who want to have a good time. They are willing to work hard and run around all their lives in order to live in a world of imagination which has brought many ills upon mankind.

All aspects of life have become synthetic: fruit, bread, drinks, clothing, shoes, building, coloring, printing, drugs, not to mention several generations and different shades of electronic machinery -- all these stem from one valley, from that modern continent of Shinar, which has dissolved the family unit and all hierarchical structure, uprooted the values of man and converted him into a consumer of life's pleasures.

The concentration of humanity in the Tower of Bovel alludes to the intentions of that generation. What they had in common was the tower, the building, and the house. Its astonishing height is an expression of the almost limitless power which man is capable of achieving, of his immense intellectual capacity. He builds with immense intensity, and in the end he becomes afraid of himself and of his capabilities.

It turned out in hindsight that the enormous concentration of humanity was to the detriment of civilization. It made an attack of terrible proportions possible. All technological developments have been reduced, and it turns out that man has trampled ahead too much, too quickly and with too much intensity.

The sin of Bovel lay in the fact that "they did not understand each other's speech." One person asked for a hammer, and he got a saw etc. This was a middoh keneged middoh punishment to demonstrate to them the conflict of interests between them.

The Nobel Prize is the most prestigious prize in the world: it expresses the international admiration of the work of the recipient. The founder of the fund was a chemist called Alfred Nobel who invented dynamite, thus presenting man with a destructive and lethal power. Towards the end of his life, realizing the extent of destruction which his invention had unleashed upon mankind, he decided to set up a private fund from his money which would donate funds to scientists whose research had contributed to the improvement of human life. This is the Nobel Prize: too quick, too destructive, and the rectification is too small and limited in view of the tragic results of man's actions.

It could be that the Ramban is alluding to this point in his commentary on the Chumash on the words "And Lemech said to his wives": "It appears to me that Lemech was very familiar with all crafts and sciences. He taught his oldest son how to pasture in accordance with the nature of the animals, he taught his second son the wisdom of music, and his third son how to sharpen swords, spears, lances and all weapons of war, and his wives were afraid that he would be punished for having brought the sword and murder to the world, and for having followed in the footsteps of his ancestors for he was a descendant of the first murderer and invented destructive instruments."

By inventing the sword and the spear he had caused murder to become widespread. Man will be held responsible and punished for using his inventive power for destructive purposes.

This is how the Ramban explains Lemech's reply to his wives: "I did not kill anybody like Kayin and Hashem will not punish me . . . he claimed that it was not the sword or the spear that kill a person, but wounds and bruises which cause a more severe death than the sword. The sword is not the cause of the murder and its inventor has not sinned."

We see that already at the beginning of human history man struggled with the issue of the power of his inventiveness and the extent of his responsibility for it. He himself invented the destruction which he wrought upon himself. His wives were afraid that he would be held responsible for his invention, but he argued that it was not the sword that killed but the man who uses it.

Following the disaster of the Twin Towers some additional issues were clarified, which will necessarily restore people to their real dimensions. Man will have to accept that not everything that is possible is also permitted, and not everything that is attainable has to be acted upon.

This is actually one of the most important and fundamental messages the Torah wants to teach man. The message began to sink in that there is no need for gigantic bombs to frighten your enemy and the whole world. You do not need to have nuclear power or nuclear submarines cruising across the world -- with just a few envelopes containing real or imaginary white powder you can manage to sow terror and cause whole population centers to shut themselves up inside their homes and be afraid of death even there, worrying about some unknown bacteria reaching them there.

Many desires have been bridled and buried together with the massive amount of rubble heaped up in Manhattan, resulting in a reevaluation of human belief systems. Divine Providence also wanted this terrible disaster to have lofty effects, by preparing man's heart to return to and unite with the Creator.

We say the Shiras Hayam every day and conclude with the posuk, "For the kingdom is Hashem's and He is Ruler over the nations. And saviors shall come up . . ." What is the connection between Shiras Hayam and these pesukim? They teach us how Hashem "rules over nations" and how it will become revealed that "the kingdom is Hashem's," just as it was at krias Yam Suf where the miracle of the splitting of the sea took place at a time when the Egyptians were behind them, the sea in front of them, and the desert on either side of them.

In other words, it was a situation with no possibility of escaping according to human logic and natural conditions. All natural avenues of escape which man relies on were shut off. Then the unexpected happened. Fundamental concepts about the human condition were smashed into pieces, disintegrating into the stormy waves of the sea. Gone was the belief that we are all-powerful and that we can take care of ourselves. This was the moment when we gained a new insight, when we reached the inevitable conclusion: "And they believed in Hashem and in Moshe His servant."

That is also how the pesukim are to be understood: "And Hashem said to Moshe . . . why are you shouting . . . (`this is no time for prayer' -- Rashi) . . . speak to the Bnei Yisroel that they should go forward." This was not a time for prayer and supplication, because an important lesson had to be learned: make the Jewish nation go to the edge of the sea and let them thereby reach the conclusion that there is no other exit. Then they will merit a miracle to save them in an unexpected way.

When humanity realizes clearly that there is no other way out of its troubles, the kingdom will be Hashem's and He will rule over nations. Basic assumptions about man's unlimited power will become shattered. Such concepts have taken root amongst us in recent years with the computerization of our high-tech society preparing itself for "the world of tomorrow."

Power, control, domination, a satellite taking images from space of a pin on the road: all these have created a feeling of exaggerated security. Based on his inventions man has formulated a philosophy of control, of being master of his own fate and so on.

All this is collapsing in front of our very eyes. "And the idols will be utterly destroyed" -- the divine course will ensure that no corner in the whole world will remain deprived of the revelation of kvod Shomayim and the dismantling of established conventions and opinions, which are the foundations of avodoh zora in the past as well as today. For this we prayed on Rosh Hashonoh: "And they shall all come to serve You . . . inhabitants of distant islands shall speak of Your righteousness . . . nations that have not known You shall recognize You, and people shall praise You from the ends of the earth, and say constantly, `Let Hashem's power be increased [`Let Hashem rule over us ?'], and they shall abandon their idols and annihilate their images . . . " -- the ramified and intricate Divine plan shall take on a totally unexpected course on the way to the ultimate purpose: "And people shall praise You from the ends of the earth."

"The foundations of the earth are collapsing." Recent events have had the very wide-ranging effect of making man reevaluate his whole outlook, which he has formulated over the last few decades. More than ten years ago we witnessed the sudden collapse of the former Soviet Union, an immense empire with a cruel, authoritarian and unrestrained regime. Those who were aged 10-12 at the time and are now 20-22 years old have no idea what this ruthless empire was like, and this regime terrorized the whole world for more than seventy years. This atheistic regime was the first one to fall.

As for the West, the motto "In G-d we trust" may be printed on American bank notes, but its way of life is one of base immorality. Although America deals very kindly with the Jews, and even though we do not know the meaning of the terrible events taking place, they are obviously not happening for nothing.

The Maharal ztv"l writes that there is a significance to the location and timing of every event in terms of the kvod Shomayim revealed by it. He says that even the timing of the discovery of America (which occurred shortly before his time) was significant. The Maharal did not explain why America was discovered when it was, but Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein zt"l, the rosh yeshiva of Slobodka-Chevron, as quoted by Rav Simcha Zissel Broida zt"l explains that the discovery was deeply significant coming as it did in the same year as the Jews were cruelly expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella ym"sh, despite the fact that Spanish Jewry had made an important contribution to the economic prosperity of the great Spanish Empire. One of the great Jewish leaders, Don Yitzchok Abarbanel, even served as finance minister in this wicked regime.

That same year Columbus discovered America which brought further prosperity to Spain because of the new trade possibilities and the discovery of natural resources on the new continent. The culmination of this hidden process was revealed several hundred years later when America served as a place of refuge for many Jewish refugees. It turned out that in that very same difficult year for the Jewish people the Spanish were preparing an anchor for the Jews hundreds of years later. (It could be that many of the refugees were descendants of Jews expelled from Spain, and many of them also benefited from American assistance to Europe after the World War).

Recent events are not new: similar experiences have occurred in the past, and the Torah has depicted them for us in a Divine language, some layers of which have been revealed to us by Chazal and rabbonim throughout the generations. These shall serve as our guides and as sources for conclusions about how to walk in the derech Hashem and the paths of the Torah. Our gedolim shlita, based on the traditions they have received, will instruct us how to interpret the meaning of current events.

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