A Common Language

The creation of many languages--and the confusion and miscommunication that ensued--raise questions about the nature of our communication today.

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The following article is provided by the Union of Reform Judaism, the central body of Reform Judaism in North America.

Parashah Overview

  • God decides to cause a flood that will destroy the world, sparing only Noah's family and the animals that Noah gathers together on the ark. (6:9-8:22)

  • Life starts over again after the Flood. The Noahide Commandments are listed, and God uses a rainbow to make a symbol of the first covenant. (9:1-17)

  • People start to build a city and the Tower of Babel. God scatters the people and gives them different languages to speak. (11:1-9)

  • The 10 generations from Noah to Abram are listed. (11:10-29:2)

Focal Point

(1) And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech. (2) And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they settled there.

(3) And they said one to another, "Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and bitumen had they for mortar. (4) And they said, "Come, let us build us a city and a tower whose top may reach to heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered all over the earth."

(5) And Adonai came down to look at the city and tower that man had built. (6) And Adonai 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. (7) Come, let us go down there and confuse their language, so they shall not understand one another's speech."

(8) So Adonai scattered them abroad across the face of all the earth; and they stopped building the city. (9) That is why it was called Babel, because Adonai did there confuse the speech of all the earth; and from there did Adonai scatter them over the face of the earth (Genesis 11:1-9).

Your Guide

Scholars believe that this story is an ancient myth that tells how different languages and nations began. What other themes do you see in these verses?

How could "making themselves a name" have kept them together?

Why did God choose language as a mechanism for scattering the people?

How are language, geographic displacement, and powerlessness related?

By the Way…

No one lives in this room
without confronting the whiteness of the wall
behind the poems, planks of books,
photographs of dead heroines.
Without contemplating last and late
the true nature of poetry. The drive
to connect. The dream of a common language.

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Rabbi Leslie Bergson

Rabbi Leslie Bergson is the Jewish chaplain and Hillel director of The Claremont Colleges in Claremont, California.

Mary Baron is the Gabbai and Executive Vice President of Temple Sinai in Glendale, California, and the supervisor of a psychiatric crisis team. She received her M.A.J.C.S. from the Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service at HUC in Los Angeles, CA.