The Language of Belonging

This week we read the Torah portion that describes Noah’s Ark and the flood, which is a popular story most of us haven’t looked at closely since childhood.  Another popular story from the same portion has to do with the Tower of Babel, which is traditionally read with the moral of the story: If you are arrogant enough to rebel against G-d, there will be consequences.

In brief, the people of the valley of Shinar decide that they will build a city with a tower that reaches heaven to make a name for themselves.  G-d “goes down” to have a look at the city and the tower, and remarks, “These humans all speak the same language, and look what they have decided to do with this — nothing they scheme to do together will be precluded from them.”  G-d “babbles” their language, so that they no longer understand one another, and they scatter across the earth.  The construction of the city and tower is abandoned.

This story stood out to me when I was a child, and I still love to read it when it comes around annually.  When I think about it, one of the messages that I have always loved about this story is about the power of shared language.  There is unity and power in literally speaking the same language – it is the medium by which we transmit the contents of our selves to other people, enabling connection, understanding, empathy, and relationships.

There is another, more abstract sense in which shared language creates power, and that is the way in which families, tribes, or entire cultures share unspoken norms, values, beliefs, rituals, and practices.  It is these features that reinforce and cement the bonds between individuals that move us from “I” to “we,” creating layers of shared identity.  This is what we are talking about when we say we are American, or Israeli, or Jewish – that we have internalized enough of those pieces of shared language that we identify as a member of that group.

The richer message of the Babel story is that humans might have been created as a single group, but there are deep parts of human nature that drive us to focus on our differences, and even to link our own identities to the ways in which we differ.  It is a crucial part of a meaningful human existence to feel that sense of belonging within a family and a tribe – in fact, living without those connections leads quickly to depression and other illnesses.  This is one reason a Jewish education matters – it teaches our children the languages that link them permanently to our people, wherever we may be scattered throughout the world.

That said, the other side of the coin is to remember that no matter what language we speak, we all share a common origin as humans created in G-d’s image, each of us containing a holy spark.

This Shabbat, I encourage you to ask your loved ones what family rituals, beliefs, values, words, songs, or traditions are the most meaningful to them, and share your answers as well.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,