There were four nations in history that subjugated the Jews from the destruction of the first Temple onward: Babylonia, Persia/Madai, Greece, and Rome. Each of these nations had different defining characteristics. To the Midrash, and the Maharal, these differences were significant.
God’s promise to Abram in Genesis 15 offers to the father of nations, a life of peace, but his descendants will not fare nearly as well. Abram will not suffer, but he is burdened with the knowledge that his offspring will be enslaved in a land not theirs for four hundred years. He is given this knowledge after…
“…a deep sleep fell upon Abram and a dread (אימה) dark (חשיכה) and great (גדולה) fell (נפלת) upon him…” (Genesis 15:13)
The Midrash always preferring economy of language plumbs new understanding from this proliferation of words. Beyond the exile of four hundred years, these four words, dread, dark, great, and fell are indicative of the four exiles the Jewish people have and will continue to endure. According to opinion one, Dread alludes to Babylonia, dark, alludes to Persia, great to the Greeks, and fell to Rome while opinion two switches dread to the Romans, fell to the Babylonians, dark to the Greeks and great to the Persians. According to both these readings, Abraham was given some seriously bad news.
How do the sages conclude that these four words are indeed referring to these four nations? They extract verses from the Bible where these words are used in proximity to the nations being discussed.
While the first opinion’s primary motivation is chronology, the second opinion is more concerned with how these words reflect something essential about the nature of those who ruled, and continue to rule over us. The fact that they are not mentioned in sequence is of no consequence. but even with these prooftexts there is much that is not understood about the nature of these nations’ relationship to the Jews. Take for instance the proof that great is ascribed to Persia because it says in the Book of Esther ”…Ahasueres promoted (lit. made great) Haman.” Other than the fact that the word great is used, what does that tell us about the greatness of Persia? Furthermore, why would the greatness of Persia eclipse the Greek empire? At a glance, it is the Greeks who have been more impressive on the world stage.
Enter the Maharal, who explains that both opinions agree that nations have defining characteristics, but they disagree about which quality is most appropriate for a particular nation. Who is defined by the dread that they cause? Who is defined by darkness? Who is defined by greatness, and who is defined as fallen?
That the sages found much to admire in Greek wisdom is well documented in both the Talmud, and the Midrash. The first opinion in this Midrash certainly concurs, explaining that Greece was the greatest of all the empires. Greece, however, was the cause of great darkness when they made Torah study a seditious activity, hence the second opinion’s counter proposal. The second opinion also sees this darkness as trumping the greatness of the Greek empire, and so chooses to define Greece by its oppressiveness and not by its ability.
How, then, does Persia merit greatness? The verse quoted before actually seems to create more problems than it solves.
The Maharal explains that Ahasueres had actually promoted Haman to a place where he was higher than the station of the king. Being descended from Amalek, the most formidable enemy of the Jews caused Ahasuerus to have great respect for Haman, to whom he literally handed over the keys to the kingdom. Haman seeing that he was regarded more worthy than the king himself believed that he had entered the pantheon of the gods. Haman, with this purported newly acquired virtue, wasted no time and had commenced to parading around town expecting the adulation of all the subjects of the empire.
Once Haman made his self perception known, Mordechai could not defer to Haman with any obsequious gesture for fear of being an idolater.
Maharal’s understanding of Haman is that of the ultimate narcissist. Instead of realizing that a diffident buffoon with a mercurial temperament had conveyed all these powers upon him, he chose to believe that he deserved a position that placed him in the heavens. It may have been the folly of the king to put Haman in that position, but Haman, drunk on luck, and good fortune chose to see this as destiny. What reinforced this exalted opinion of himself is his lineage. He came from the leader of Israel’s enemies, and had a strong legacy of cunning, deceit, and demagoguery. He considered himself worthy by viewing his vanity and self adulation as virtues.
This is narcissism in the extreme. None of us, however, is immune to this impulse, especially in a culture, where narcissistic self preservation is conflated with morality. It starts with being centered on rights instead of responsibilities, and it ends with people misconstruing their lifestyle choices as virtues, or vices. When in reality what masquerades as virtue, may very well be narcisstic self preservation. A nazi in herbivore’s clothing, allows one to parade as a moral example for what is a lifestyle choice that masks a hidden cruelty. Being thin is not a virtue, nor is being healthy. Being popular is not a virtue, nor is being sexy. Being adored for these qualities has not made the world a better place, but a more vapid one. Self discipline in service of others is different from being disciplined to achieve for ones self. Certainly it is not wrong to better ones self, but in and of itself, it represents nothing virtuous.
I run four to five miles most days. Originally, it was to help control my blood sugar. Now, it’s an exercise in hedonism that is a priority because of the pleasure it brings me. The idea that this somehow makes be better than those who choose other avenues of pleasure,say eating, is beyond ridiculous.
This misunderstanding is the stumbling block that was placed before Haman so that he would be hoisted on his own petard (in this case a very high noose). But we are all subject to this lack of clarity, and we all have the desire to look no further than the figure we cut, the foods we eat, the recreation in which we engage, and the popularity we seek. The allure of this worldly greatness, according to the Maharal, is ultimately an empty pursuit that brings no true joy, no true happiness, and, certainly no possibility of redemption.
This is the game the nations of the world play with each other and with their own people. We are but a microcosm of what happens all around us, and if we can look outward and shake our heads at the destruction that the petty designs of world leaders has wrought, we may as well look inward with a faint murmur, quietly declaring to ourselves when nobody else is around, et tu…