Everyone on earth had the same language and they learned to make bricks for building. After discovering this new technology, the people wanted to make a name for themselves because they feared being scattered all over the world. To avoid this fate, they chose to build a city and a tower with its top reaching to heaven.
The Torah then tells us that God journeyed down from heaven to see what humanity was doing. Upon seeing the tower, God (perhaps confronting His own fear) is concerned that if, with one language, humanity was capable of building such a tower, then nothing would ultimately be beyond humanity's reach. God's answer to this "problem"? God gave each person (or groups of people) different languages, so that they could not understand each other. God then scattered the people over the face of the whole earth. The tower ceased to be built.
In essence, the tower that was built to create a name and prevent people from being dispersed, actually caused humanity to lose its name to be scattered. One must love Torah as irony.
But what is the deal with the name, and the language, and being scattered?
First, God is pretty sensitive about the word "name". One of our tradition's 100+ names for God is HaShem, which literally means "The Name". Perhaps when the people of Babel want to make a "name" for themselves, they are trying to become gods, or like God. To God that would not be a good thing. In keeping the people from making a "name" for themselves, God is ensuring God's control and God's unity.
Perhaps the issue of "one language" is more about being of one "mind", rather than of one actual language. In this theory, God's plan would be to make sure that people have different ideas. Different ideas and different theories, and the conversation about them, lead to growth. When people are forced to think only one way, the result is often dangerous. Think of Nazi Germany or Communist Russia.
The world functions in a more healthy way when there is a multiplicity of thoughts coming from various sources. A free flow of ideas helps to foster growth.
The "being scattered" piece, fits together with the different languages and ideas. Growth in the world, and healthy functioning, occurs when people are working in different places and performing different tasks. The world needs city dwellers and farmers and fishermen and people in the valleys and people on the mountains. The world needs doctors and mechanics; the world needs teachers and engineers. This differentiation is part of what makes the world work and what makes it beautiful.
At its literary best, building the tower and God's destruction of it, is a metaphor for God's dislike for the creation of a monolith of any sort. Our tradition shies away from singular controlling structures. This is why our Torah learning model calls for discussion rather than frontal teaching. This is why we are, mostly, accepting of different points of view within, and outside, our tradition. Torah is not lived in one way. Lives are not lived in one way. Some like Picasso, some like Renoir. Some like The Beatles, some Like Mozart. A variety of languages sets the pallet for the gorgeous painting we call our world.
While differentiation and being scattered may have seemed to be a punishment for humanity's desire to be like God, in reality, it is a gift. A gift worthy of a big bow; a big, colorful rainbow.
Shabbat Shalom - Rabbi Michael S. Jay