Wednesday, October 25, 2023

What's in a Name: The Anonymous Builders of the Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel,
by Pieter Bruegel the Elder [1]
"Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.... And they said, 'Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.' " (Genesis 11:1,4)

Chapter 11 of Genesis has the story of the Tower of Babel. Why were they punished? It isn't obvious from the literal text. The people have one language, they build a city and a tower, and a few verses later G-d gives them multiple languages and disperses them to separate communities all over the world.

Contrast this with the story of Abraham, which begins in the next chapter: 

"I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
And you shall be a blessing." (Genesis 12:2)

Notice the difference: the generation of the Tower of Babel wants to "make a name for [themselves]". In reference to Abraham, G-d says, "I will make your name great."

The Hebrew word for "name" is shem, which is spelled shin-mem (שֵׁם).  The account of the Tower of Babel has nine verses, and seven words with this root of shin-mem.  In an indirect way, the author seems to be saying that names are quite important to the narrative.  When read with this lens, something interesting pops out. Nobody in the story has a name!

The builders of the Tower of Babel had a level of unity that we can only dream of nowadays. Unity, but for what purpose? To make the tallest tower the world had ever seen, an engineering marvel. They wanted to build something so magnificent they would be remembered for generations to come. What actually happened?  The tower and the community that built it are long gone, their names effectively erased.  Meanwhile, Abraham's spiritual descendants now account for over half of the world's population. [2]

In our generation, humans have unprecedented power to reshape the world, for good or ill.  The important question is not whether unity is a good thing or a bad thing. The important question is: for what purpose?

Photo credit: By Pieter Brueghel the Elder - Levels adjusted from File:Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg, originally from Google Art Project., Public Domain,

UN estimate of the world population in 2020: 7.8 billion people
Accessed 2023-10-24
2020 estimates of religious composition by country:
Accessed 2023-10-24

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Death as a Tuning Fork

Vach cameraman/
Most US and UK orchestras tune to the same note, at 440 hertz. [1]

440 is also the numerical value of the Hebrew word for "dead" -- meit (מת) [2]

Death has the power to bring us together, across all the categories that divide us, if we let it.

According to Wikipedia: 
"A440 is widely used as concert pitch in the United Kingdom and the United States. In continental Europe the frequency of A4 commonly varies between 440 Hz and 444 Hz."

Normally I don't find gematria to be helpful in understanding the world, but this one resonates with me.

Monday, October 2, 2023

What is a Miracle?

Photo credit: G0DeX
"There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle." -- Albert Einstein

In the Bible, the Hebrew word ot (אוֹת) is generally translated as "sign" or "wonder."  These are some places where the word is used:
  • the Sabbath (Exodus 31:16-17)
  • male circumcision (Genesis 17:11)
  • the mark of Cain (Genesis 4:15)
  • the rainbow (Genesis 9:12)
  • phylacteries (tefillin) (Exodus 13:16)
  • the plagues of Egypt (Exodus 7:3, 8:19)
  • three miracles that Moses performs before Pharaoh (Exodus 3:12, 4:8)
  • the blood on the doorposts for Passover (Exodus 12:13)
What's the common thread here?  Some of these are done by G-d and some by humans, so the word ot can't refer only to supernatural activity where humans are passive observers. Furthermore, the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-5) is NOT referred to as a "sign", but rather as a "marvelous sight":

(1) Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of G-d. (2) A messenger of G-d appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. (3) Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” (4) When G-d saw that he had turned aside to look, G-d called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.” (5) And [G-d] said, “Do not come closer! Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground!”

There is an interesting detail in this passage. First we learn of an angel, and a bush ablaze but not affected by the flames.  Then Moses marvels at the bush, while not acknowledging the angel at all!

Ramona Lofton (better known as "Sapphire") wrote: “Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, "Grow, grow." [1]  Perhaps we are surrounded by unseen angels, which would appear if only we knew how to look.

Or as Eden Phillpotts put it: "The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper." [2]

Back to the source

Many years ago I was told [3] that if you want to understand a Hebrew word, you should find the first place that it appears in the Bible.  The word ot first appears in the book of Genesis, on the fourth day of creation:

(14) G-d said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night; they shall serve as signs and seasons, and for days and the years; (15) and they shall serve as lights in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth.” And it was so.

When the Bible uses the word ot, it doesn't (necessarily) mean that something is outside the normal laws of physics.  Like a rainbow or the planets, it could be part of our ordinary day-to-day experience.

As Einstein said, we can see a world where there are no miracles, or where everything is a miracle.  Miracles are in the eye of the beholder, if your wits grow sharp enough you can see them everywhere.

Sapphire attributes this to the Talmud, and the actual quote is from the Midrash, Bereshit Rabbah 10:6
Rabbi Simon said, "There isn't a single herb or spice that doesn't have a constellation in the firmaments that smacks it and tells it to grow."


This was on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, some time between around 2004-2012. I never wrote down the name of the person who told me, so I can't give proper attribution.