Judea Reform Congregation, Parashat Noach
Four miles to the east of where we learn and pray tonight, in the Hayti neighborhood, sits a field littered with the concrete slabs of a public housing project. From 1967 until 2007 Fayette Place stood, before it was bought by developers, razed to the ground, and then left waiting for market conditions that never arrived.
Here and there, a few steps survived the wrecking ball. My colleague, Rev. William Lucas has called them, poetically and tragically, “the steps to nowhere.” That image came to mind this week as I studied parashat noach, and specifically the eleventh chapter of Genesis, where we read the story of the Tower of Babel. I imagine the great ziggurats, Mesopotamian fortress-temples which inspired the story of the tower, after they’d crumbled but before they’d been completely dismantled or covered over by the sands of time. It must have been something, to see those ruins, those steps to nowhere.
וַיֹּאמְר֞וּ הָ֣בָה ׀ נִבְנֶה־לָּ֣נוּ עִ֗יר וּמִגְדָּל֙ וְרֹאשׁ֣וֹ בַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְנַֽעֲשֶׂה־לָּ֖נוּ שֵׁ֑ם פֶּן־נָפ֖וּץ עַל־פְּנֵ֥י כָל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃
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.”
Each generation imagines the story anew, seeing it through the lens of its own experience. Three teachers from the Jewish tradition illustrate the way we’ve understood Babel across the centuries. They are: Joseph B’chor Shor, who lived in Orleans, France, in the twelfth century; Ovadiah Seforno, who lived in Italy between 1475 and 1550; and Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, who led the great yeshiva of Volozyn in the second half of the nineteenth century.
- Joseph Bechor Shor (12c, Orleans, France): Let us build ourselves a city and a tower… Tall in appearance, …with its head in the heavens.. meaning “very tall, as with great cities and towers in the sky.” …and make ourselves a name… The name of the tower and the city will be known far and wide. If one travels to a distant land, they will know how to get home, since everyone they ask for directions will know of the place (since everyone talks about it), and also be able to see it from afar. Bechor Shor would have known the Roman-style, 12th century cathedral at Orleans (though he probably didn’t live to see it collapse in the thirteenth century).
- Ovadiah Seforno (1475-1550, Italy) The height of the tower and the greatness of the city would cause all people to associate it with the supreme deity, and to address their prayers in its direction. Why? So that the king of that city would effectively be king of the world (since all prayers were brought to his tower). Seforno lived in Rome and had significant interactions with figures in the Vatican.
- Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (1816-1893, Volozhin) …with its head in the heavens… Don’t think for a moment that the verse is suggesting that there would be only one city in the whole world! Logically, what it means is that all other cities would be connected to it, and subservient to it. The city would have a tower for reconnaissance, looking out over all of the territory, so they could be assured that no one was leaving for some other land. This is why it needed to have its head in the heavens. …and make a name for ourselves… There were guards and sentries, and military police to punish transgressors. For if not, what purpose would the tower have served? Everything was based upon suspicion. …lest we be scattered over all the face of the earth. What remains is to understand why they were afraid of people leaving for other lands. It is related to the “uniformity of ideas,” mentioned in the first verse, and to the fact that differing opinions were not tolerated. That being the case, they needed to stand guard over the population, so that no one could leave their territory. Whenever someone departed from the accepted opinions was sentenced to death by fire (as they attempted to do to Abraham). Thus it is clear: the d’varim achadim of the first verse were a license to kill those who thought differently. The Netziv taught during the reign of Alexander III, who promoted “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.”
Three voices spanning hundreds of years, from three very different cultures, and each sees the Tower of Babel as a symbol for what was happening to them, right in their moment. What about this moment?
As we read the Tower of Babel, we might ask, what do the ruins of Fayette Place signify? What name were our ancestors trying to make for themselves when they ran the Durham Freeway through the heart of the Hayti neighborhood, sending one of the wealthiest black communities in the south on a decades-long slide? Or when they planted Durham’s mighty shade trees in the wealthy, white neighborhoods alone? What sort of community are we building today, putting our bricks to use not to build more schools but more prisons? What name do we make for ourselves when we sip craft our cocktails in rooftop bars downtown, feeling like we’ve reached the heavens, but knowing in our hearts that there’s more we should be doing to share the space with all of our brothers and sisters?
And we might ask: what sort of tower do we want to build? What sort of name do we want to make for ourselves? Will our city be one in which people of all colors, all genders, all nationalities are heard and heeded? Will many tongues flourish in our homes, businesses, and schools? Will we set aside old assumptions and biases to invest, boldly, in neighborhoods that have been left for dead? Will jobs be attainable, with wages that are livable? Can our showcase hotels and restaurants thrive in a downtown that is also home to our public school teachers, our service industry workers, our fire fighters,? Can we build that city? Can we make that sort of name for ourselves?’
I believe we can. I believe we can because I believe in Durham CAN. Durham’s broad-based community organization works across lines of race, ethnicity, and economic attainment to build power and agitate for justice. Durham CAN is presently addressing the agenda implied in the questions I just asked. We advocate for affordable housing downtown, for a community-based redevelopment of Hayti (so the steps will once again go somewhere!), for more Spanish-speaking counselors in our schools, and for a model of policing built not on suspicion and fear, but on partnerships between residents and law enforcement.
I believe we can because I’ve seen the steps to nowhere. On a brutally hot and humid day last July, over 200 residents from Durham CAN stood in the shadow of the Durham Freeway, to bear witness to the Fayette Place ruin and to issue a call for action. Between that day and now, we’ve kept working, hard. And now, the land has been reacquired by the Durham Housing Authority, and will soon (God willing!) be redeveloped in public/private partnership. We envision homes, shops, professional offices, green space, all designed partnership with the people who live close by, and with community investment…including from the congregations that comprise Durham CAN. You see, Durham CAN doesn’t just preach jeremiads; we live out the message of Jeremiah (30:18): v’nivn’tah ir al tilah: “The city shall be rebuilt on its ruin, and the fortress in its proper place.”
Durham CAN will lift up this vision to the candidates for mayor and council on Thursday night at 7 pm, at Mission Level Baptist Church (arrive at 6:30 and sit with the JRC Delegation). We expect a religiously, racially, and ethnically diverse gathering of 500 people to be present, and we’d love to have a great delegation from Judea. Flyers will be available at the Social Action Committee table during the oneg, as well as a sign-up for the assembly.
May the steps we walk, together, lead us to get a name for ourselves that will endure, for good.