On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I looked into the eyes of my congregants through… a camera. No one was in the pews. I followed the cues of the A/V crew when we went back-and-forth between “live” and pre-recorded prayers. They gave me a ten-second count-down before I was back “on-air.” It was totally bizarre and yet, unexpectedly sacred.
The story of the Tower of Babel also piques my curiosity regarding an unexpected turn. We learn in the Torah that after the generations of Noah, everyone on earth had the same language and same words. This generation decided to build a city, with a tower high in the sky to make a name for themselves so that they were not scattered all over the world. After that, God punished them by confounding their speech, doing exactly the opposite of what they wanted: scattering them over the entire earth (Gen. 11:1-8). We might look at this passage, as modern parents who encourage our children (albeit humbly) to make a name for themselves. What precisely did these people do wrong?
According to Rashbam, this generation’s “sin” was that “the Holy One commanded them to “be fertile and increase” and “fill the earth” (1:28), but they chose instead to settle in a single place in order not to be scattered all over the world. That is precisely why God decreed that they be scattered.”
What is going on here?
The sin of the people of Babel was that they wanted to remain stagnant and insular. God had just asked them to be fruitful, to “fill the earth” and yet, they chose instead to remain in the same place, unchanged and with one language. They wanted a unified voice; they feared doing anything different and they only heard those who spoke their own native tongue.
I am proud that our country is comprised of diverse people of different faiths, cultures, and dialects. However, I fear that we are losing an appreciation for those differences. I worry that we have become unable to hear from the tongues of others. The pandemic has forced us to literally remain within our own homes, school “pods,” or social “bubbles.” Social media continues to train our minds by reinforcing our existing beliefs instead of branching out and hearing the voices of others. And yet, as the elections will soon come to a screeching halt, we understand it is a privilege that everyone is entitled to share their voice (Please, my friends: get out and vote!).
God wants us to fill the earth. God needs us to branch out. God desires that we hear the voices of others, especially those who do not speak our language. God yearns for us to get outside of our comfort zones.
I was not thrilled about standing in front of a camera on the High Holidays when normally these are days when we pack the pews. And yet, by going out of my comfort zone, by seeing the need for an innovative form of Jewish leadership that involved students and adults in a unique worship service, I led my community in a davening experience that I am sure they will never forget. From what I’ve heard, it was “better than they ever expected,” with some even citing that they loved having a bathroom so close! I pray it touched them in some meaningful way.
And what about the future for our world? What happens after the elections? When there is finally a vaccine? I hear so many declare: “when this is over, we must go back to normal!”
My friends, isn’t our new normal forever changed?
I believe we can fold the goodness of this pandemic and all the best practices that we learned from it into our future ways of being and living. Yes, it shall remain rooted in our tradition and our family customs, but there are undoubtedly new customs being created that will make our future way of living even stronger. Our tradition has always grown alongside the situations around us and these times are no different.
“Thus the Lord scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city” (Gen. 11:8).
When we scatter the earth, we humbly focus less on the self. When we journey throughout life and experience new and challenging situations or relationships, may we bring to our present all our past influences and teachings with open minds and hearts.
May our scattering beyond our own towers reveal for us a future that is even more vibrant and sacred.