Words are power, silence is deadly. Just ask the folks in this week’s torah portion.
The story of the Tower of Babel is technically an origin story about the creation of languages. It is the message of the story and the teachings of commentators who explore hidden meanings that provide a way to process what is going on in our society today.
“Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.”
God came down to look at the city and tower that humans had built, and God said, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.”
HA! Says God. But why? What is it that God really sees?
The answer lies in a midrash by Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, a prolific rabbi of the first century. He taught that the people at the time of the tower became so absorbed in their work they forgot the laws of common human decency. They were intent to build, build, build their image and reputation and became hyper- focused on each brick and not on the lives of those doing the work. “If a man fell off the tower, they paid no attention to him, but if a brick fell they sat down and wept, and said: ‘Woe is us! When will another brick come and replace it?’” God confounded the work because the human priorities were not aligned with the divine plan for human decency, love, and kindness. God confounded the work because the human priorities sabotaged the whole point of our human potential. Speech was not used at the right moment and for the right purpose. Screams of outrage when a brick perished and nothing when a human being perished? The very value of human life was lost in building a tower of ego, a tower of hubris, a tower built on a foundation of hatred. Sounds hauntingly familiar.
Words are power. Hate speech is inexcusable because hate destroys and hate is antithetical to love. It was last week and last year and four years ago and last decade and last century. It still will be tomorrow and next week and in the seasons to come. Antisemitism has existed for centuries. I don’t have a thermometer to measure if it is getting worse or better but I know it isn’t new and it isn’t likely going away any time soon. But what I do have and what I do know is that the power of our speech, the power of OUR commitment to laws of common human decency is at the core of our faith and is at the core of what ought to motivate us to use our words, our speech with care and intention. Our words and our silence defines our character and shapes our human experience. Will we walk through a shadow of darkness to bring light? Will we use our voices to fight against evil and dehumanization all the time, in every form with determination and fidelity?
What if we lived in a world where 18.3 million people said “not on my watch- never again- I will not be silent.” Standing arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, expressing outrage and proclaiming solidarity makes the fight less lonely and easier to navigate. It also builds towers of dignity, compassion and love. It also brings honor to the essence of our human existence. It starts now. At least I hope it does. We can be certain that the darkness, destruction, and terror will present itself again in a different guise.
Let’s harness the power of speech and build a tower of greatness focusing on the inherent value and sanctity of each life. Let’s use our language and speech as a way to build up towers of greatness built on respect and human decency and dignity. Now is the time to build that tenacity and stamina. Now is the time to fight against hateful terrorizing propaganda left in plastic baggies by cowards under the cover of darkness in driveways. Now is the time to use the power of our words to fight against antisemitic propganda hanging on an overpass of the 405 guarded by Nazi saluting terrorists. Now is the time in OUR lives in OUR time to use our speech to make a difference, to make a change. Then we will be building our generations' towers and legacy that our descendants will praise and bless.