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Standing on the corner of two major thoroughfares in midtown Manhattan recently I was struck by the number and variety of people walking past. There were hordes of them all purposefully heading towards some appointed place and event. They were a composite of all of humanity, representing every color of human skin, babel of languages, all social strata, faiths and ethnic origins.

When I was a blasé New Yorker twenty-three years ago I never noticed that all of these people existed and were parading before me. The anonymity of urban life allows one to ignore people as though they do not exist. We tend to see only what we wish to see, the people we can recognize and with whom we can identify, and we are oblivious to everyone else.
We see our world but avoid seeing God’s world. And so the entire wonder of God’s creation of humans escapes us. In so doing we fall victim to intolerance, hatred of others, war and violence. Abraham Lincoln once famously said that God must love the poor for He created so many of them. Well, God must love variety for He created such a variation in human appearance, culture and ethnicity.
So then why do humans decry such variety? Why do we crave conformity and governmental rule over individual freedom and self-assertiveness? Why do we long to restore civilization to the level of the generation of the Tower of Babel, of absolute unity of language and conformity of thought?  Why, indeed?
The Lord apparently was displeased by the attitudes and behavior pattern of the generation that attempted to construct the Tower of Babel. He wished there to be a scattering of humans all over the globe with a wide variety of languages, cultures and folkways. This is the plain reading of the biblical narrative in the opening chapters of the Torah.
People were clearly meant to be different one from another. Only because of this can we justify and understand God’s singling out of the Jewish people as being special and different than all other peoples, cultures and faiths. Jews represent the quality of difference that God planted within human society. It is the stubbornness of human beings to accept this idea of difference as being a Godly gift that has led to so many of the ills that have plagued human society over the ages. And, in the case of the Jews, it remains the root cause of anti-Semitism until this very day.
The slogan of the sinners of Israel over the millennia of our existence as a people has always been that we wish to be like everyone else, like all the other nations of the world. But that is contrary to the wishes and guidance of the Creator.  Historical, racial and ethnical differences always arise to guarantee that the principle of human diversity always is present and active.
I know that this is an oversimplification of a very complex matter but I also hope that you will understand the basic point that I am trying to make. There is a reason that the rabbis instituted a blessing that states: “Blessed be God Who has made His creatures different one from another!”        
We somehow fear people that are different than we are. They challenge our security and our very self-image. We see this in the cruelty of children to those that are physically different than they are. In the nineteenth century, Christian Europe was convinced that it was doing God’s work in “civilizing” the human inhabitants of Asia and Africa.
The missionaries were convinced that they were teaching the true faith to the previously heathen masses. Current day historians and social scientists heatedly debate  whether colonialism and imperialism were a boon or a curse to humankind then. But there is no question that hundreds of thousands and even millions of people were destroyed or enslaved, simply because they were different than those who were then temporarily more powerful militarily.
The inability to live and let live, which is the basic premise for allowing differences to exist and be tolerated in human society, lies at the root of the bloody conflicts that so bedevil us currently.  How to retain our own self-esteem and strong identity without having to demonize those that are different than we are is a major spiritual, psychological and social challenge. Most of human history details for us the unfortunate results of humankind’s inability to rise and overcome that challenge. But, we have to keep on trying.

Berel Wein   

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