The root of the word for “tower’ is gadol, meaning big or great. The people say “let us build a great big thing to make ourselves renowned”. In response to the building of the Tower of Babel, God disperses the people across the world and confounds their language.
In the fragmentation and in the disintegration of homogeneity, comes humanity. This is the pivotal moment in which we encounter for the first time the formation of cultural and ethnic identities. Unique cultural identifiers like land borders and language are effectively created at this moment. The lesson that God gives is a simple and stark one: do not expend your energies on building monoliths for the sake of being renowned. Remember who you are — human, not God.
But now I think the Torah portion reminds us of another lesson. In our age of identity wars and populist rhetoric, countries have to learn that just being great or big is not an end, ever. It is a pointless goal. Nations can also suffer the same malaise that the first mass construction project faced. This sidrah reminds us that vanity projects for self-adoration do the opposite of their intentions.
Hope is not found through forcing everyone to agree on a united project of being great. We can never be prepared to sacrifice our diversity of opinion or our aspirations for making the world better on the altar of a slogan. Instead of greatness, our striving should rather be for mutual prosperity, safety and security, respect for difference, protection of minorities, international co-operation, the rule of law and peace.