The story of how our world came to have numerous nations populating different lands is told in Genesis 11, the story of the Tower of Babel:
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech [and lived in the same land]. People said to each other… “Come, let us build ourselves a city…otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and …said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth…
Earlier in the Torah (Genesis 1:28), God had commanded humans to “… multiply and fill the earth,” but our ancestors disobeyed and decided they would rather stay in one place, speak one language, and have only one city for all of humanity. So God intervened and forced them to form different nations in every corner of the world, countries with different languages, cultures, and customs. Why?
Because God loves diversity.
While many people assume that God and religion value unity and conformity, Judaism and the Torah teach exactly the opposite: that variety is the spice of life, and God’s greatest hope for humanity is that it be different and diverse, with respect and honour for difference. Then, God chose the Jewish people as His messengers to bring diversity to the world, and to teach the world the dignity of difference.
This radical reading of Jewish theology was put forth by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his eponymous book The Dignity of Difference. Here are his words:
And now we begin to understand why immediately after Genesis 11, the story of Babel and the attempt to impose an artificial unity on human diversity, comes the call to Abraham:
“Abraham, leave your land, leave your birthplace, leave your father’s house, leave all the places where everyone is like you, and travel to an unknown destination. Become a stranger in a strange land. Go and live a life that is different from the people all around you, different from the way the Mesopotamians live, different from the way the Egyptians live, different from the way your neighbors, the Canaanites and the Hittites, live. Go and be different.”
Why did God tell Abraham to be different? It was to teach all humanity the dignity of difference.
God’s charge to Abraham came alive last week at our Grade 3 Literary Event, Traveling Through a Literary World. A culmination of weeks of study, our students took a virtual trip around the world to 53 different countries, celebrating the dignity of difference from London to Lebanon, Tibet to Cameroon. In their English class, our students each read a different book about a foreign land and people, books like Paris in the Spring with Picasso and Flowers from Sarajevo. Then, last Thursday, our students presented a short account of each of their lands and its people. Through their preparation, our students gained love, learning, and respect for God’s multifarious world, and understood the wonder that the Almighty created by compelling us to live in a diverse world.
Akiva School has always been at the forefront of spreading the Jewish message of the dignity of difference. Our founder, Rabbi Hartman z’’l, was a pioneer in teaching this value and making it the cornerstone of our educational mission. We thank our Grade 3 teachers, Emily and Lindsey, our librarian Janice, and our art teacher Isabelle, for their imagination and innovation in creating Traveling Through a Literary World and for reimagining how to spread our mission of diversity to a new generation.