Another Babel Story

My son who is two is obsessed with construction. Each Friday morning, when his day care is closed but his siblings are in school, we set out for a walk and rarely get far; inevitably he insists that we stop to watch the first construction site we come across. He is mesmerized by the workers in hard hats digging out an elevator shaft, throwing debris down a long chute made of plastic garbage cans held together by chains. “Oh look!” he turns to me when he spots a worker up on the roof. “So high! So high!” I want us to keep walking—we were on our way to buy challah, or deliver cookies to a friend, or run one of our other pre-Shabbat errands—but alas, no. Yitzvi wants to watch until the building is finished – until the elevator shaft is completed, and another story is added on to the apartment complex. He sits upright in his stroller, riveted; I am standing behind him, leaning on the handles as I read the novel I brought with me in my shoulder bag, losing myself in my book as he watches the erection of scaffolding and the pouring of concrete.

Yitzvi cannot see me as I stand behind his stroller reading, but passersby will often glance at the two of us and smile in amusement. I always feel somewhat sheepish; is this really any better than parking my son in front of a television set? That night in bed, I will read him The Children’s Encyclopedia of Trucks, or Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site, feigning interest as he excitedly identifies the bulldozer, the dump truck, the cherry picker, and the crane. These are not the books I would have chosen—I prefer interpersonal drama to the taxonomy of motor vehicles—but I try to enter his world, to speak in his terms, to smile as he pretends his arm is the boom of an excavator that he is slowly lowering into his lap.

The next day, on Shabbat, we are all home in the afternoon reading on the couch and playing games on the floor. Yitzvi, as usual, is trying to build a tower out of wooden blocks, convinced he can add yet another story without the entire structure toppling. He is happy for his sisters to help, but only if they share his single-minded focus on building the tallest tower possible; when Liav tries to add wooden trees from our Brillo train set and Fisher Price people to one of the lower stories, he pushes her away. “No people! No trees!” Shalvi adds another layer of blocks on top and Yitzvi eyes her suspiciously; if her block makes the tower crumble, he will lunge at her in anger. “It’s Yitzvi’s tower,” he tells us all, in case we have any doubts – not just that the structure is his, but also that we all must call it by his name.

In the book of Genesis, the story of Noah’s flood is followed by an account of an ambitious, if misguided, construction project. The builders of the Tower of Babel wish to reach all the way to the heavens and to make their name great: “Come let us make a city and a tower with its top to the skies, to make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4). The Babel builders, who all speak “the same language and the same words,” are united in their goal of building the highest tower possible; anyone who does not further their goal is dismissed as irrelevant. The midrash teaches that if one of the workers fell from the tower and died, the other builders would not even notice him; but if a brick fell to the ground, they would weep over the loss (Pirkei d’ Rabbi Eliezer 24). At Babel, the project mattered more than the people.

Essentially the Babel builders were like toddlers, insistent that everyone speak their language and share in their goal. My son with his blocks lacks the sophisticated vocabulary or the open-mindedness to engage with his older sister when she tells him, “We can take the little people and put one on every story of the building, and then the tower will have color and look nicer, and the people can play with each other – they can be a whole family.” He shakes his head vehemently. “No people!” he exclaims indignantly, and with an angry flick of his arm, the freckled Fisher Price boy with the red baseball cap is precipitously plunged three stories down to the floor. “No! no! No!” he insists, his already-limited toddler vocabulary contracting into this single angry word.

The Babel builders, in spite of their goal of making a name for themselves, remain anonymous – we don’t hear the name of a single one of them. It is only in the next chapter of the book of Genesis, with the introduction of Abraham’s family, that the characters become individuated. God promises Abraham, “I will make your name great” – unlike the Babel builders, Abraham’s name will be known and remembered. The story of Abraham and his descendants will continue throughout the rest of the book of Genesis, unlike the story of the Babel builders, which ends when their tower collapses.

On the floor of our living room, my son’s tower sways precariously as he tries and fails to add another story. “No! No! No!” he cries, the same language and the same word, again and again. I crouch on the floor amidst the scattered blocks and try to explain, speaking his language, how this story might go on.

3 thoughts on “Another Babel Story

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