Torah | Thinking alike canbe perilous to allby rabbi judah dardik
|Follow j. on||and|
Maftir (Rosh Hodesh) Numbers 28:9–15
The narrative is fairly straightforward in the beginning of Chapter 11 of Beresheet. Once upon a time, society shared a common language and purpose. Sounds wonderful! As our numbers grew larger, people began moving east and settled in a new land. Surely this was a reasonable development. They figured out how to make bricks, and engaged in an unprecedented building campaign to build a tower up to the heavens.
HaShem did not approve of this plan, and noting that this is what mankind did when united, scattered the people across the Earth by changing their understandings of language. Once people could not understand each other, they grouped together with those with whom they shared a common tongue. The united quest to build the Tower of Babel ended in dispersion.
Every time I read the story, I wonder what exactly went wrong. What was their egregious error? That they wanted to build a tower to the sky? Since when is poor urban planning and design such a crime? There is no prior mention in the Torah of zoning laws or a prohibition on this sort of construction. Why did HaShem block their project and scatter the people?
Furthermore, dispersing the people takes away the one thing that they have going for them. If HaShem valued their ability to be together, why confuse their languages and scatter them?
One possible reading suggests that the community of this tower was suffering an ancient case of “groupthink.” Irving Janis, one of the pioneer researchers into this phenomenon, defined it as “a quick and easy way to refer to the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action.” In attempting to minimize conflict, the group members agree to a premise or course of action without considering alternatives, because that could upset the harmonious balance of the collective. Let’s all just agree to think alike, and everything will seem easier.
In their Torah commentaries, the Kli Yakar and the Netziv focus on the Torah’s notation that the people were of “one speech and purpose” (11:1). This group of people not only wanted to live together but to think identically. If the population were to spread out, people would develop independent ideas that did not match those of the core group. It wasn’t about the tower, but rather about keeping everyone close by and thinking alike.
Bringing a group together to debate and analyze a topic can be helpful and informative. Teams working through a challenging issue often come to better results. However, that only works if the group is committed to coming up with the best answers it can, as opposed to merely trying to get to instant and smooth agreement. In the latter case, the group’s internal discussions can pressure a person to think like the others and give up on ideas that would be constructive, though different.
Seforno suggests that unfortunately, the king of the city who presided over this project was none other than Nimrod. A king famed for intimidating others with his hunting prowess, he is portrayed as a despot who would not tolerate dissent and tried to throw Avraham into a fiery furnace for daring to challenge the local religious norms. HaShem’s response was to break up the tyranny of a group committed to only one way of thinking, and allow space for subgroups that could each come to their own creative ideas and conclusions.
Maimonides notes (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Character/Deuteronomy 6:1) that it is human nature to be influenced by our peers. We do tend to want to act and think like those around us. This feature is neither inherently good nor bad, but rather depends heavily upon who is around us. Surrounded by people of integrity and sterling qualities, a person can be raised to consider life as they do. But surrounded by friends of low character, even a good person will be dragged down.
The Mishnah in Negaim (12:6) says it succinctly: “Woe to an evildoer and woe to his neighbor.” It pays to take a look around every so often and ask two questions. First, “If I disagreed, would I say anything?” And second but perhaps more important, “Are the people with whom I associate also people whom I admire?” Shabbat Shalom.
Be the first to comment!