Y2K fluke could create a modern Tower of Babel

Friday, October 16, 1998 | by

Rabbi Arthur Waskow



The Torah's upcoming portion on the Tower of Babel describes what happens when humanity becomes so arrogant as to use a "universal language" to "storm heaven."

Today, our universal language is the 0-1-0-0-1-1-0-1-0-0-0-0-1 of the computer, and we have used it to make the whole human race dependent on a single technology. Suddenly we have realized how flawed that technology is.

Will computers and chips that do not recognize the year 2000—popularly known as Y2K—actually bring on a near apocalyptic global disaster simply because they get the date—the simplest number—wrong?

Some believe this might happen, if chips and computers that are embedded in electric power systems and other crucial infrastructures fail as the millennium turns. This could be even more serious than failures in bank records and other commercial enterprises.

What is to be done? The Bible points the way. When Babel's arrogance brings disaster on its builders, God not only baffles and "babbles" them—but also creates a remedy by forcing upon them a multiplicity of tongues.

"Back to the space where you speak face-to-face," God seems to say. "Recreate your local cultures and communities, to replace the towering machinery of global arrogance!"

Out of that crisis, if we look to Torah, came the family of Abraham and Sarah, the people Israel—and all the other peoples that speak their own local mother-tongues in their own localities on Mother Earth.

So whether the Y2K bug creates a major disaster or merely serious problems, the Tower of Babel solution applies: Recreate local and regional eco-communities, intimately intertwined with the Earth.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi should be thanked for first raising this issue in the Jewish community.

So in communities—not in isolated households—we should begin now to gather information and discuss the possible Y2K outcomes. Panic is born of ignorance.

And in communities—not in isolated households—we should again learn how to keep warm through local resources, how to stock and share essential foods, and how to share synagogues and similar communal buildings as emergency living spaces.

In other words, imagine a post-tornado or post-earthquake scenario, and prepare for it.

Then if disaster comes, we will be able to meet it without martial law and catastrophe. If disaster does not come, we can relish the joy of new communities and the knowledge that all the plants, the animals, the rivers and the human faces bear in them the Spark of God.

Perhaps parts of our global superstructure, our Tower of Babel, are about to die. If not, surely our "societal addictions"—to the computer, to the fuels scorching the globe—have begun to ride our backs with a deadly grin. Those addictions need to cease if we are to live.

Yet we also need a lesson that is not so clear in the Bible's Babel.

This time we must keep alive the knowledge that will keep us alive: Each local space and face—not only the one we see when we wake up each morning—is a Spark of the Divine. And our loving of what we see face-to-face is a lie unless we also love what we see only from the moon: the face of Earth. The whole Earth.

From the death of our habitual addiction to the world machine, we can draw forth renewal and rebirth of the organic Earth, in which both the individual organism and the whole are sacred. From the reconnection with our beloved places in the Earth, we can relearn an arithmetic of sacred spaces and of sacred faces.