Like most boys his age, my oldest son enjoys building towers. He is three and a half years old. A few nights ago, in an attempt to get him to quiet down before bedtime, I offered to read him a story about a tower.
“Let’s see if I can find it,” I said as I searched our bookshelves.
“I got it!” His face lit up with anticipation.
I pulled down some books of children’s Bible stories and began reading him several versions of the Tower of Babel.
I quickly realized the relevance of this story to him.
My oldest son started nursery school this year. It’s his first experience in a Hebrew-speaking environment since we have decided to speak only English at home. Even though we live in Jerusalem, we made this decision in order to preserve English as our children’s native tongue. While our son’s communication skills in English are very good, this leaves him that much more frustrated when he is unable to communicate in Hebrew at school. Others assure us that by Hanukkah he will feel at home in both languages. In the meantime, he gets very frustrated.
As my son gets frustrated, I see how frustration turns to anger and anger turns to violence. I see how the inability to communicate between different languages is an excuse for deteriorating relationships. I see that when he doesn’t know what else to do, he lashes out. Yet, when other children cry because their parents have left them at school, I am proud to say that my son comforts them. They may not understand his words, but they understand his good intentions. When he wants to, the inability to communicate in the same language does not deter him from forming friendships and helping others.
The Biblical story of the Tower of Babel tells us that there are different languages between people because, having one language between them, people worked together to “make a name for themselves,” thinking that they could build a tower into Heaven and be equal to G-d. G-d did not destroy the tower. He destroyed the people’s ability to communicate in one language and so, unable to work together, they abandoned the building and the tower was never completed.
Reading this story this year, I had a new appreciation of its message. In addition to appreciating the relevance to my son, I could not help but think of the Twin Towers having just commemorated a year since the terrorist attacks on September eleventh. In the past year we have heard many stories of selfless acts that occurred on that day; the acts of heroism in which a savior helped a stranger without regard to race, religion, sexual preference or nationality. Despite the many languages spoken that day, men and women worked together selflessly helping their fellow man – a far cry from the behavior condemned in the Biblical story.
As an American Israeli I’ve noticed how different languages affect me. I have different personas in Hebrew and in English. After I was speaking Hebrew for a while, I stopped translating. I began thinking in Hebrew, as an Israeli, in a different culture and with a different mentality. All of us live in different cultures and speak different languages – at work, at home, and with our children. For me, in the army the difference is the most extreme.
As I write, I can hear the sounds of battle south of Jerusalem. Sometimes it is surreal; I sit comfortably at home while not far away, in Beit Jala or in Bethlehem I hear people shooting at each other. Even though this has been going on for over two years, I have not gotten used to it.
And once again, last week I had reserve duty. In three weeks, I have to report again. I have had more reserve duty this year than any year previous to it.
Like Americans, Israelis are very proud of our military strength. In Israel, we have become experts in security and in fighting terrorism. This is the field in which we have made a name for ourselves. We continue to build on that, reaching greater heights at home and abroad. However, not able to understand our enemy, Israel has once again used its army to lash out against Arafat. Not being able to speak the same language as its foe, the U.S. is debating a strike against Iraq.
As my son bridges his worlds to help his classmates, we as individuals try to emulate the selfless acts of the heroic stories from 9/11. They help us to see beyond what we perceive as immediate dangers and to reconnect with the unity of the human spirit. I encourage my son not to be frustrated by his inability to communicate, to reach out and to connect with his peers. As nations, we seem unable to do this.
And back to the army I go.