In 1993 I traveled from Australia to Hong Kong. I was invited by the Hong Kong community to lead a Shabbaton. A wonderful Sephardic Jew by the name of David Darvish picked me up at the airport. As we drove from the airport through one of the most glamorous cities in the world I was struck by these huge monster-like statues that were built on almost every busy corner. I never saw images such as these and was curious as to what they were doing downtown. I asked my host whether these statues represented some sort of Avoda Zara. Were they idols? Were they worshiped? My host with a chuckle pointed out the window to a giant skyscraper in front of us. “Do you want to see an Avoda Zara? That (skyscraper) is what is worshipped in this town.”
In our Parsha we read about the Tower of Babel. A generation that preceded any form of Judaism joined together to build a building. What was the purpose of this building? What was the sin of this building? Hirsch explains that the intention of this generation was to start a united cause to create something larger than themselves, larger than life. By uniting all of mankind together for this cause they would create a new force, the power of confraternity. The individual as an individual is weak and eventually will die. By becoming part of a Tzibur, a world community, they will have joined something immortal that will outlive us all. The people in this generation wanted to create out of individuals a force that was larger than life. The system would guide them and lead them. It would obviate the need and in fact discourage people to think and make decisions; the system itself became an Avoda Zara.
The Talmud tells us people who were part of the system would be hammering away at their building and would sometimes fall off the building and die. No one paid any attention. They were so caught up with the fervor of building a great world system the individual didn’t make a difference, It was the cause that counted.
We have seen throughout history how people got swept away with the masses only to lose sight of their own standards of decency and their own moral ground. To the Egyptians building those pyramids was more important than the millions of people that suffered under its bricks and mortar. The early Christians killed millions for the sake of a united brotherhood of love. The Nazis were able to create incomprehensible inertia that killed 11,000,000 people to better the world. People, individuals, were swept up into this mob and stopped thinking. Individuals didn’t matter. It happened with Communism and it happened at Woodstock. It can happen again. The Tower of Babel can happen all over again if we lose our ability to think!
G-d divided them into different languages and they couldn’t communicate so they separated. And the cause was no more. I remember walking through the new suburban campus of the University of Buffalo noticing how every building was so far away from the others. Dormitories were on opposite sides of a huge campus reachable only by busses that arrived infrequently. How can you get any student spirit on this campus? I was told that the last time there was achdus on campus there was violence on campus so this is the new way of building campuses.
I think there is a message here, an Avoda Zara, that we can all fall into. We can get caught up in a wave. Even amongst our own there are systems that we surrender to that with all good intentions can actually become destructive. As long as we are all thinking and contemplating the ratzon Hashem we will build only good but when we surrender to a system without thinking we can hurt people.