God punishes the hubris of humanity by confounding their language and dispersing them to the corners of the Earth. This story calls our attention to the function of communication in the building of human civilization.
“And the land was of one language (שפה)…”
There are two possible words for language: safa – lip, and tongue, lashon. What is the difference between them, and why does the Torah choose the term שפה (lip) over the term לשון (tongue)? The Mei HaShiloach offers an explanation based upon the anatomical differences between the tongue and the lips; the tongue is internal, while the lips are external.
When someone expresses themselves unauthentically, in a way which the words do not reflect their inner thoughts and reality, we say in Hebrew that that person is speaking “מן השפה ולחוץ”, from the lips outward. When we speak with truth, our hearts and tongues are aligned and words which emerge from the heart enter the heart. The Zohar has a beautiful expression which captures this: “The tongue is the quill of the heart.”
In the first instance, language – safa – is used in a utilitarian way, to communicate in order to manipulate others to do my bidding. In the second instance language, tongue, is the way human hearts touch each other. On the dimension of civilization, it is the glue of true common purpose and social cohesion.
The civilization which attempted to build the great tower in Babylon displayed social cohesion and common purpose. But this was an illusion, only from the lips outward; in English we would say “only skin deep”. In truth, the common language was used to control and manipulate without true regard for the Other.
The challenge we face both in our personal relationships and in society building (especially in an increasingly technologically oriented society) is to use language meaningfully and earnestly, in a way that binds hearts and minds together for greater purpose.