The word “radical” can mean “favoring basic change,” and it can also mean “relating to the root or origin.” Avraham was a radical protestor according to both definitions, as he struggled to change his society by calling upon human beings to rediscover the original Divine mandate which defined their purpose within the creation:
"The Compassionate and Just One took the human being and placed him in the Garden of Eden to serve it and to protect it." (Genesis 2:15)
According to our tradition, the following story took place when Avraham was a young man:
“The whole earth was of one language and of common purpose. And it came to pass, when they migrated from the east they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks and bake them in the fire.’ And the brick served them instead of stone, and clay served them for mortar. Then they said, ‘Let us build ourselves a city, and a tower that reaches to the sky; let us make a name for ourselves and not become scattered throughout the world.’ ” (Genesis 11:1-4)
The above passage begins to tell the story of the "Tower of Babel" - a story which takes place after the great flood, when a large group of Noah's descendants began to migrate from the East. In this passage, we are introduced to a seemingly unified and peaceful society which is developing its technology and which wishes to build a tall tower that can serve as a unifying symbol. In fact, we would imagine that such a unified society would merit the blessing of the Compassionate One. Instead, the Torah states:
“But the Compassionate One descended to see the city and the tower that humankind was building. And the Compassionate One said, ‘Behold, they are one people with one language for all, and this is the first thing they undertake! And now, should it not be withheld from them all they propose to do?’ ” (Genesis 11:5,6)
The Torah then describes how the Compassionate One caused them to be scattered through removing their ability to have a common language. Midrash "Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer" (chapter 24) reveals the reason why the Compassionate One intervened:
Rabbi Pinchas said: There were no stones there wherewith to build the city and the tower. What did they do? They baked bricks...Those who took up the bricks went up on the eastern side, and those who descended went down on the western side. If a man fell and died, they paid no heed to him, but if a brick fell they sat down and wept, saying, "Woe is us! When will another one come in its stead?"
And Avraham, son of Terach, passed by, and saw them building the city and the tower, and he cursed them in the name of his God. He said, "Master of All, subdue and divide their tongue, for I have seen violence and strife in the city." (Abraham's statement is also recorded in Psalm 55:10)
Rabbi David Luria was a noted 19th century sage and kabbalist who was a disciple of the Vilna Gaon, and he also wrote a commentary on the Midrash, including Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer. In his commentary on Avraham's statement, "I have seen violence and strife in the city," he explains that Avraham was referring to their cruel and cold indifference to the lives that were lost in the building of the tower. They wept over fallen bricks, but not over lost lives. The "violence" that Avraham condemned in the name of God was their willingness to sacrifice human lives on the altar of their new technology.
Their perverted drives to achieve power and prestige caused them feel that the citizens of a state exist only to serve the power and prestige of the state. This was the selfish intention behind their statement, "Let us make a name for ourselves!" (Genesis 11:4 – See the commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch)
. What was the reaction of the builders of the tower to Avraham's protest? Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer records:
They rejected his words, like a stone cast upon the ground. But is it not a fact that every choice and good stone is only used as a cornerstone of a building? It is therefore written, "The stone which the builders despised has become the cornerstone" (Psalm 118:22).
The builders of the tower despised the spiritual vision that led Avraham to publicly protest against the injustice and cruelty of this selfish society. Nevertherless, Avraham's vision will one day be recognized as the "cornerstone" of human civilization, for through this vision, humankind will find lasting happiness, unity and peace.
The Torah reveals, however, that in order for this vision to be realized, it was not enough for Avraham to continue in his lonely role as a radical protestor. In order to begin the historical process which would eventually transform human society, the radical protestor is to become the forefather of a new and radical nation which will have the responsibility to become a source of inspiration and blessing for all the nations – not through preaching the Divine message, but through living it! As the Compassionate One later proclaimed regarding this radical nation, “Through it all the nations of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 18:18).
Yosef ben Shlomo Hakohen