Community Rabbi Corner, Nov. 1, 2019

Rabbi Mark Cooper
Oheb Shalom Congregation
South Orange, NJ
Parashat Noach
"E pluribus unum" is the motto of the United States. Latin for "out of many, one" it appears on the Great Seal of the United States. The phrase, along with other elements of the seal, is a reference to the 13 colonies united into one nation. Americans are asked to see themselves as parts of a whole, caring for one another in spirit and deed, rather than as individuals who happen to live in the same territory.

But the idea of “out of many, one” should not be interpreted as overshadowing the individuality of each person. As a nation of immigrants and refugees, America is a diverse place that encompasses many different cultures. While we share a national history, each of us retains our personal story, our strengths, talents, interests and priorities. We each have views on a wide array of issues, including politics, social trends and solutions for society’s most pressing challenges. We may be “one out of many” but we must acknowledge and respect each other’s individuality.

This is one of the lessons learned from the Tower of Babel story at the end of Parashat Noach. Some say that the story is a warning to humankind to accept our fallibility and not rival God. The scientist and Torah scholar Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-94) observed that following the flood, “the whole earth was of one language and of one speech.” This, he says, was a circumstance approaching totalitarianism, with all of humanity welded into a single bloc, conforming to a single ideal and way of life, with no deviation from what is acceptable to do or even think. In His mercy, writes Leibowitz, God scatters humankind and thus guarantees diversity of thought and behavior.

The Tower of Babel story reminds us to respect the differences among people in America and around the world and to cherish not only the ideals that unite us but those that make each of us different and special.