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Surviving the Babble (and the election)

This sermon was delivered at Temple Israel on Friday, November 4th, 2016. 

I’m quite terrible at learning languages. Nothing causes me more panic than staring slack jawed at a well meaning foreign speaker. Or that empty headed feeling when I can’t remember the right vocabulary.

I enjoy eloquence. I married an English professor and writer because nothing woos me like a well constructed sentence. And a perfect metaphor – be still my heart! I teach because I love talking and listening, connecting to others in interesting conversation.

I studied French for 10 years, and I can barely order from a menu.

In a masochistic move I became a rabbi – requiring YEARS of Hebrew study. I retook Aramaic twice because I love Talmud but boy, that is one difficult text to translate.

I keep at it because we cull ultimate meaning from our texts in their original language, and nothing brings me more joy than teaching and learning with you. I study language because I so want to communicate with the citizens of our world.

Human beings speak thousands of languages and communication is difficult.

We live in a world of constant babble – a veritable cacophony of baffled voices, struggling to understand.

Our Torah portion this week tries to explain the babble.

All the earth had שָׂפָ֣ה אֶחָ֑ת – one language – וּדְבָרִ֖ים אֲחָדִֽים – and one set of words. Since each could communicate with their neighbor, coordinated creativity was a cinch. So all the people joined together in a great building project. They baked bricks, cultivated raw bitumen for mortar and attempted to build for themselves a great city and tower.

But their hubris overshadowed humanity. Their creativity and engineering was not touted as a fantastic public works project – it became a symbol of human corruption.

A midrash explains that it took many years to build the tower, and a brick became more precious to the builders than a human being. If a person fell to his death none took notice, but if a brick dropped they wept (See Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews). The commentator Soforno teaches that the people treated the tower like a supreme idol – but they were only worshipping their own inflated egos.

The reactive God of Genesis is enraged. God confuses their language so that each person speaks a different dialect. The building project ends uncompleted and the people are spread over the earth.

In God’s anger, human community is worse off than they began. The ensuing chaos is described in Midrash Genesis Rabbah:

When one asked his neighbor for an ax, the latter brought him a spade. In his anger, the former killed him and split his skull. Then every man took his sword, and they fought against one another. Half of the world fell by the sword. [As for the rest], “Adonaiscattered them.” (Genesis Rabbah 37)

From engineers to enemies – they became babblers, struggling to endure the cacophony of misunderstanding.

The violence of misunderstanding is real in our world. According to cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, in the 1930’s among the two million aborigines in New Guinea, 750 different languages were spoken in 750 villages, which were at permanent war with one another.

Our country too is plagued with babblers, a cacophony of misunderstanding.

We are four days away from what many are calling the most contentious and vicious campaign in American history.

As a country we have become increasingly fractured. Lawmakers who can not or will not cross the aisle to make important decisions for the American people. A seat left vacant on the Supreme Court because our two party system does not agree on core moral values. And millions of Americans who feel mistreated, discriminated against. An American dream that feels perpetually out of reach.

And through this election we have witnessed a country torn at its seams, supporters for each major candidate who cannot understand the perspectives of the other half of the country.

A babbling cacophony of misunderstanding – The urban dweller cannot understand the rural. The progressive liberal cannot understand the conservative.

We are so divided as a country, this is becoming a primary, global identity marker. From October 31st through election day, the London based paper the Daily Telegraph is running a multipart series on “America Divided.” Divided over immigration, the gender gap, terrorism, economic development. A babbling cacophony that is playing out on a global stage.

As a rabbi in an institution with a 501c3 – I will refrain from speaking about the candidates. You’re welcome Elaine, Chris and Dan…

But I do believe we have a moral and spiritual duty to respond to the baffling, babbling cacophony that we as humans have inherited and we are watching plague our country.

I do not know what is going to happen in four days. I know we will endure a constant level of anxiety until the results roll in – I invite you to my office for coffee and moral support.

I also know that on November 9th, regardless of our next national leader, we all have a role in healing this fractured country.

Over the course of the election there have been many who have crossed state lines, taken planes, trains and buses to canvas for their candidate. They have knocked on hundreds of doors, spoken to hundreds of strangers to get out the vote.

After this election, we must continue crossing state lines, and other barriers of race, class and religious values to find a way to understand one another.

In his article in the New Yorker, Joshua Rothman encourages us to adopt a pluralistic view of the people around us. In moments like this it is tempting to commit a kind of moral synecdoche – understanding a part of a person as the whole. Just because a person hold opinions and values we abhor, it does not mean they do not also hold virtues we admire. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, we each contain multitudes. If we adopt this point of view, we can strive to find common ground.

On November 9th and onwards, let’s search for ways to reach understanding, to quiet the cacophony, and move ourselves from a community of babblers, to a society of language learners and listeners.

I have no natural talent for language study. And this might not work. It feels near impossible to understand people who say things I find abhorrent. And to make things more complicated, I’m not sure those who are different from me have any interest in understanding my point of view. But I think we have to try. If we want to live in a society that values kindness, compromise and peace, we will all need to learn to understand one another. Or at the very least, do a better job listening.

And if we manage to cure or curb this ancient curse of babbling, if we learn to embrace the cacophony of difference – let’s not build towers for our egos, let’s build a society of kindness, a world of peace.