The Netziv explains that the sin of Migdal Bavel was not the specifics of what they said: (such as blasphemy or ego or heresy as Rashi suggests). Rather the problem was that at Migdal Bavel, there was only one voice, a singular way to think and to express oneself. The people at Migdal Bavel feared diversity. Yet it is through diversity that God’s plan is able to come to fruition: people serving God in different ways and people learning from one another while maintaining their individuality and uniqueness.
There is one Midrash that support the Netziv’s view. “Rabbi Eliezer said,’devarim achadim is related to the word chadim- ie sharp words.” For the people at Migdal Bavel spoke sharply against God- and against Avraham. According to the Midrash they mocked Avraham, calling him “an old mule”- ie sterile and without a future. Why such vehemence against Avraham, who at this time was 48 years old and had not even begun his formal spiritual journey?
The people of Migdal Bavel rejected and mocked Avraham because he stood for three ideas which they despised. And it is these attitudes that highlight the problem of “one language, one purpose.”
Avraham stood for unity, not uniformity. Avraham preaches a message of monotheism to all who would listen, and even to those who were just interested in his hospitality. Yet Avraham’s goal was not to make everyone exactly like him. In fact, when Avraham begins his journey next week he leaves with Hanefesh Asher Asu B’Charan- those whom he had influenced while in Charan. And that’s the last time we hear of them. They went on to live their lives very different than Avraham; there was no uniformity. But Avraham had accomplished his goal: a unity of disparate people that all acknowledge and respect monotheism.
Avraham celebrated commonality, not conformity. Hashem promises Avraham that he will be an Av Hamon Goyim, the father of a multitude of nations; NOT the father of one huge single nation. He had two sons that he loved even though they were quite different. He is promised that through him all the families of the land will be blessed. They will maintain their uniqueness yet identify with one land, just like it was Avraham’s hope that they would identify with one God.
Avraham valued belonging, but he was not interested in necessarily fitting in. He feels tremendous responsibility towards all other human beings. That’s why he prays so hard for Sodom, and that’s why he fights so hard on behalf of the five kings. Avraham belongs to the human race and takes that role seriously and with a sense of responsibility. Yet Avraham remains HaIvri: the other, different and unlike anyone else in his generation. He does not feel the need to fit in to the rest of society, even as he takes the responsibility of belonging very seriously.
The lessons of Migdal Bavel are lessons that we need to keep in mind as a society, and especially as a synagogue community. Diversity is a natural part of Hashem’s world order; we should embrace it and never try to fight against it. Our goal should be unity; unity of goals, unity of values, but not uniformity. We strive to find common ground but never demand conformity. We must learn to appreciate the value of belonging to a group, while not requiring that one has to “fit in in all ways” in order to belong.
A society/ community built upon these values is not a Tower of Babel, destined to be dismantled, but a shining example of what Hashem hopes for us.