Parshat Noah

Towering Over Others

Global development means more than building and construction.

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Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

On a recent visit from his new home in Dubai, my cousin explained why there are so many conflicting reports in the media about the eventual height of the "Dubai Tower" currently being built there. It seems the rulers are concerned that another country will simply build something a few meters higher, preventing the tower from remaining in the position of "world's tallest." I wonder if the leaders of the United Arab Emirates ever said "come, let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves (Genesis 11:4)." Their competitiveness indicates the same idea as the descendants of Noah at the end of this week's parashah.

American Jewish World Service

What's So Bad About A Tower?

The Torah doesn't answer this question directly; instead, it relates only that God sabotaged the tower by giving the workers different languages so that they could not communicate. The midrash in Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer attempts to fill in the gap. The tower, it says, was to be the pinnacle of achievement for a tyrannical despot who instilled in his people a set of disturbing values.

This ruler, Nimrod, had achieved his position of worldwide dictator through might and violence. He wanted to build the tower so that he, rather than God, could have total control of Heaven and Earth. The construction reflected this corrupt value system: it was said that if a worker fell off the tower, people hardly noticed, but if a brick fell, everyone wept. One can see that, in the midrash's perspective, the project represented a complete perversion of priorities, valuing development over human life.

Worker's Rights at Play

The same is true throughout much of the world. To use the U.A.E. as our example, it is a country with a towering economy that is kept intact by its migrant labor force which makes up as much as 80% of the country's population. These "guest workers" do not have the opportunity to become citizens and have little political representation or access to social aid. They are the manual labor used for extravagant development projects rising out of the desert. They are employees who are denied access to the protections and generous benefits the oil-exporting state gives its citizens. Issues of immigrant labor forming the backbone of the workforce while being denied basic rights are familiar to countries around the world, including the United States.

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Rabbi Matt Carl

Rabbi Matt Carl is the associate rabbi of Congregation Mount Sinai in Brooklyn, New York, and is the campus rabbi at Hunter College in Manhattan. An alumnus of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, Rabbi Carl has integrated service and justice concerns with other traditional aspects of the rabbinate.