Two contradictory teachings from the Torah:
Last week, we learned that human beings are created in the image of God, and charged with overseeing all the rest of Creation. This week, in Parashat Noach, we have the story of the Tower of Babel -- a tower to reach and perhaps storm the heavens, thwarted by God.
What does God want? That we use our minds and creativity to the full extent of their power? That we set limits on the designs of human beings?
The answer we need will be different at different times. When the BP oil spill began this spring, I immediately thought of the Tower of Babel. This incredibly complex process of drilling under the pressure of the sea; these ridiculous, failed improvisations to cap the bleeding well....we think we have the design and the fix for everything. But we don't.
It's not just about physical structures, "towers" into the air or beneath the ocean. The financial system is another Tower of Babel. More and more arcane derivatives, complex trading by computers, pieces of debt and insurance broken up and distributed around the world -- the financial markets are a dangerous Babel.
The Tower story begins with the motivations of the people, motivations that are good. They want to preserve their unity as they are growing again after the Flood. They want to deserve God's attention again, for something better than the corruption and violence of their ancestors. They tap into their ingenuity, to design and build this structure to serve both purposes.
But they take it one step too far. They want to claim the vision that God has. They want to say that when they work together, they will equal God in creativity, and be suited to supervise everything they see.
The Torah teaches that such arrogance is a great danger. When we think we can engineer absolutely anything to soak the energy we need out of the earth, we are wrong. When we think we can build an economic system more around mathematical models and fiber optic wire, than around the things that people actually use and need -- we are wrong.
I can't say for sure where the line is between acting as the "image of God" and building Towers of Babel. I'm pretty sure that iPads and constitutions are on one side, credit default swaps and biological weapons on the other. Some think that we are destined to go through the Babel cycle over and over, to build and watch things crumble, and only to learn after the fact.
I hope not. I say: let's try to find the line. If we've crossed it already, let's find where those figurative Towers are and try to remove them ourselves. Before they come down on us in destruction, before more people have to suffer for the arrogance of us all.