All the world spoke one language. The people decided to build a great tower ascending to the heavens. God scatters them and gives them different languages so that they will not be able to understand each other and complete such a tower. We learn of the generations from Shem through Avram and Sarai.
What drives the people in Shinnar to build such a tower? The Bible says:
וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָבָה נִבְנֶה-לָּנוּ עִיר, וּמִגְדָּל וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם, וְנַעֲשֶׂה-לָּנוּ, שֵׁם: פֶּן-נָפוּץ, עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ.
And they said: ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’
While sometimes we value unity among people and coming together, in this case it was unity toward an unholy end. There were two sins committed by this union of people to build a tower.
1. “Let us make us a name.” “Name” in the Bible refers to a reputation (Thus the phrases “kiddush Hashem” and “chillul Hashem” mean sanctifying or desecrating God’s reputation in this world, respectively). That’s the stated purpose of the people in Shinnar: to build their own reputation – to compete with God’s reputation. Unity towards a positive, productive end is admirable. Unions formed only for self-aggrandizement of the group, simply to boost the group’s reputation, is a terrible thing which is ultimately destructive.
2. “Lest we be scattered…” God had commanded people on two occasions, both with Adam and with Noah, to “be fruitful and multiply; to fill the earth and to conquer it.” The people’s desire to remain in one place was a sin in the most literal sense. God said fill the earth; the people do not want to fill the earth but rather to stay in Shinnar. While it is normal to struggle with God and with what God wants of us, in this case the people held and maintained a value that was wholly contradictory of the basic core value God had given them; it’s a value that some say is the very purpose of humanity. This was the other sin. We may debate the parameters and specific manifestations of certain values, but directly contradicting the basic components of a core value is not something God or, frankly, any society would accept.
Rabbi Roy Feldman