The widely-heralded book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, by Paul Kennedy, (New York, Random House, Inc.) was published in 1987. Kennedy's thesis is that a superpower emerges, grows, plateaus, and eventually declines, replaced by a new nation. He cites the rise and fall of Great Britain, envisions the relative plateauing of the United States, and predicts the eventual rise of China. Kennedy is a historian, and while his book focuses on the modern period, he does look back at ancient China and the Near East. He argues that the rise and fall of great nations is part of the pattern of human history.
Almost 2000 years before Kennedy, our Sages made the same observation. They based their thoughts on a reading of a verse from this week's Torah portion that 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. The ascending angels represent the "rise" of the great powers that the Jewish people had confronted over their history. They include the Babylonians, who destroyed the First Temple. Yet, like the angels in the text, the Babylonians soon descended, replaced by the Persians. The Persians rose, yet they too eventually descended, replaced by the Greeks. The Greeks rose, yet they also fell, replaced by Rome. The angel of Rome was still ascending. 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 (see Nehamah Leibowitz, Studies in Bereshit, 4th rev. ed., trans. Aryeh [Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1981], p. 299.)
This midrash is clearly anachronistic. According to biblical chronology, Jacob lived at least a thousand years before the rise of Babylonia. Yet we are not meant to read this dream and the midrashic interpretation of it as addressed only to Jacob. Jacob is the symbol of the people Israel. Jacob embodies the wandering of the Jewish people that our Sages had already experienced, which was to characterize our history for much of the last 2000 years. This wandering gives us a perspective of the ebbs and flows of history, and on the rise and fall, as it were, of the great powers.
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.
Amazingly, the Rabbis' interpretation 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. They conquered nations and build vast armies. Israel was always a tiny people in the crossroads of larger battling nations. Yet, while these great military mights fell, 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 in words that later inspired Debbie Friedman, Elliot Z. Levine, and others in song, " 'Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit,' said the Eternal God" (Zechariah 4:6).
This truth is counter-intuitive. 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.' " (I thank Rabbi Jonathan Sacks for relating this story.)
Rabbi Evan Moffic is senior rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, Illinois.