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Vayetze-The rise and fall of empires-Why?

The rise and fall of empires-Why?

 This week’s Torah portion describes Jacob’s vision of a ladder stretching between heaven and earth. As we read in Genesis 28:12, “He dreamed, and lo—a stairway was set on the ground with its top reaching to heaven, and lo—angels of God going up and coming down on it.”


The Rabbis point out that the angels first went “up” the ladder. Jacob represents the people Israel, and his dream is a glimpse into its future. The Holy One shows Jacob the angelic princes of the four kingdoms — Babylonia, Media, Greece and Rome — to where the Jewish people were to be exiled, kingdoms that would rise in power (ascending angels) but eventually fall (descending angels). The angel of Babylon mounts 70 rounds (of the ladder of Jacob), the angel of Media 52 rounds, that of Greece 180, and that of Edom or Rome mounts highest of all “above the heights of the clouds” (Midrash Tehilim).

The Babylonians destroyed the First Temple. Yet, like the angels in the text, the Babylonians soon descended, replaced by the Persians. The Persians (Media) rose, yet they too eventually were replaced by the Greeks. The Greeks became a world power, yet Rome ultimately superseded them… The Rabbis connected Rome and Esau, and Jacob feared that the angel of Rome would remain ascendant and that his children would never be free of Esau’s domination. Yet, in 28:15 God says, “And here I am, with you: I will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this soil. I will not let go of you as long as I have yet to do what I have promised you.” This is God’s promise that Rome, too, would eventually fall.

The Rabbis feared that the world superpower of their time, Rome, would remain ascendant forever. Given the Roman persecution of the Jewish people and destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, this situation endangered the Jewish people. The Rabbis, however, interpret the verse to suggest that Rome, too, would eventually fall and that God, who stands at the top of the ladder, would guard the people Israel.

The history of civilization is the history of the rise and fall of empires.

Within the lifetime of most of you reading this, we have seen the fall of the Soviet empire. In 1991 the Soviet Union ceased to exist, splintering into 15 separate republics.  People alive today have lived through the dissolution of the greatest empire the world has ever seen, the British Empire. For years it was said that “the sun never sets on the British Empire.” It controlled enormous wealth and territory.

Yet it, too, was not to last.


So we see that the Midrashic interpretation of Jacobs dream has turned out to be true. Ancient Rome did eventually fall, and the Jewish people have lived through the rise and fall of other superpowers. Yet, the Midrash is more than historical prediction. It is also a statement about what resources make and sustain true power. Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome were all great military powers as were the French, the Ottomans British and the Soviet Union. They conquered nations and built vast armies. Israel was always a tiny people at the crossroads of larger battling nations. Yet, while these great military giants did not endure, Israel survived. True strength rests not in numbers or military might. It depends on the spirit and values of the people. As the prophet Zechariah said ” ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit,’ said the Eternal God” (Zechariah 4:6).


We tend to assess nations on their military strength and resources. Similarly, we evaluate a person’s “net worth” by his or her financial resources. Yet, true strength and worthiness are found not in numbers but in values. Wealth is measured not by one’s savings but by one’s tzedakah.


There is a wonderful story about the great nineteenth century British Jew, Sir Moses Montefiore. He was a close friend of Queen Victoria and was the first Jew to attain high office in the City of London. He had come from a wealthy family, so he was able to retire at the age of forty and devote the rest of his life—he lived to be 101—to philanthropy. He built the first soup kitchens in Jerusalem and the famous windmill that overlooks the Old City of Jerusalem.

Near the end of his life, a reporter asked him, ‘Sir Moses, what are you worth?’ He thought for a while and named a figure. ’But surely,’ said his questioner, ‘your wealth must be much more than that.’ . . .  Sir Moses replied, ‘You didn’t ask me how much I own. You asked me how much I’m worth. So I calculated how much I have given to charity thus far this year—because we are worth only what we are willing to share with others.’


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