“If I am me because I am me, and you are you because you are you, then I am me and you are you. But if I am me because you are you, and you are you because I am me, then I am not me and you are not you.” –The Kotzker Rebbe
According to Jewish tradition, he was the first emperor. According to secular written history, it could be possible to trace him back to Sargon of Akkadia, the first emperor to conquer several cities in Mesopotamia, and have the surrounding regions beholden to him. In the book of Genesis, his name was Nimrod.
The Ramban in his commentary on the Chumash expounds upon Genesis 10:9 concerning Nimrod:
“He ensnared the minds of the people by his words, misleading them to rebel against the Omnipresent. Therefore it is said regarding any man who brazenly acts wickedly, knowing his Master and yet intentionally rebelling against Him–it is said, ‘this man is like Nimrod…’ Nimrod began to be a ruler by force over people, and he was the first monarch. Until his era there were no wars and no reigning monarchs; it was he who first prevailed over the people of Babylon until they crowned him. After that, he went to Assyria, ‘and he did according to his will, and magnified himself,’ (Daniel 8:4), and there he built fortified cities with his power and with his might…”
Thus, in recorded human history, was born the idea of “empire.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book, The Dignity of Difference, asserts that throughout history, the concept of empire has been caused by what he calls “Plato’s ghost,” the Greek/Western philosophical assertion that truth is universal, and thus the world must be brought under this universal truth and morality. He goes on to write that this has been the reason for western imperialism and colonialism. On a strong level, he is right. And yet, with all my respect to Rabbi Sacks and his brilliance, I would assert that it is not so much “Plato’s Ghost” as it is truly “Nimrod’s ghost” at the deepest root that has plagued human history of empire, colonialism and the forcing of ideology of one people unto another.
Thus, when comparing these two men, Avraham and Nimrod, what do we see?
In my last blog (To Love Like Avraham Pt 1. | Yehonatan Ben Israel | The Blogs (timesofisrael.com)), it was noted that Avraham didn’t just see the outward aspects of those around him, but that he saw “into their soul.” That no matter the actions that they had committed, that those around him were beautiful soul sparks sent from Heaven. As such, Avraham had a certain understanding that true hesed requires restraint. That you are you and that I am me. That in one of my personal rabbis’ words, “unity is not sameness!”
It must be noted that truth, despite all of it’s complications on earth, is truly universally absolute whether it’s realization is there or not. Avraham understood this, as did I am sure Nimrod. Yet, while Nimrod took the truth and either manipulated it to his own gain of empire and manipulating others, or even suppressing truth entirely when convenient for him, Avraham understood that the majority of the time, one can only arrive at the truth on their own. That true hesed requires boundaries, and the right timing. It cannot be forced on someone, whether through manipulation or power.
For of of us, it may be easy to agree with this, but so often today, we are by nature inclined to correct people not out of compassion, but out of pride at feeling superior. We say things to each other on social media that we would never say to each others’ face. Speaking the truth effectively means being also being a good vessel for it–which means our motives must be of compassion.
Thus, when it came to each man’s outlook, Avraham and Nimrod both had universal worldviews in how they approached others. They both saw the truth as universal and indeed, wanted the entire world to come under their banner. Yet, Avraham knew to draw healthy boundaries between himself and those he interacted with. Nimrod, a universalist with an imperialist agenda, wanted to do away with all boundaries that impeded him. We can most definitely see “Nimrod’s ghost” playing out in world history in the guise of truth and liberation. The universalistic ideal has an extremely slippery slope towards the implementation of empire. Indeed, we see in world history that it did not take very long at all for the two universalistic religions of Christianity and Islam to go from universalist peaceful missionaries who were persecuted to coercive imperialists who persecuted others and aspired to world domination under “Christendom” and “Dar al-Islam.”
While Avraham had thousands of students who looked to him as a teacher, Nimrod had millions of slaves to his will (Perhaps even more), of whom he had coerced through manipulation, brainwashing, and even physical force. Avraham had an open tent of hospitality. Nimrod had a tower (of Bavel) to build. Avraham sacrificed his time and energy for those around him. Nimrod used and sacrificed those around him for his own imperialistic agenda. Avraham looked at a soul and asked, “How can I help?” Nimrod looked at a soul and asked, “How can I use this for my own gain?”
The outcomes of Nimrod’s ancient imperialistic legacy–be it borderless international corporate attempts at governance, the United States and NATO, the USSR, the British, the French, the Ottoman, the Chinese, the Mongolian, the Roman empires (to only name a few), or often the softer forms of power in Christianity, Islam, or the western liberal idea that nations must embrace western liberal values, that attempt to missionize, emotionally manipulate and brainwash–is and was under the agenda to bend the entire world their wills, destroying whatever sovereignty that any other nations, groups, families, or individuals would hold. Indeed, when we read the story of the Tower of Bavel in the written Torah (Genesis 11:1-9), we find no names. Yes, the Tower of Bavel was Nimrod’s project, but it would almost seem as though in an effort to build the Tower of Bavel, that the indentities and heritages of different tribes, families and individuals were sacrificed for “a greater good,” much like Negan from The Walking Dead. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that this is not healthy.
The land Israel on the other hand, unaffected by “Nimrod’s Ghost,” was destined to have set borders, allowing other nations their own sovereignty. This is truly, in my own humble opinion what it means to be a “light unto the nations,” and most certainly the great legacy of Avraham. To be a light, not a consuming fire that eats up everything without limits.
Once again, to return to the idea of absolute, universal truth, I want to say again that of course truth truly is absolute. Yet there is a fantastic ingrained humility in Judaism itself that the land of Israel should have limits, borders–because if one has the truth, more importantly is a worthy vessel of giving truth (Which is of extreme importance to assess of oneself indeed!), one need not go out into the world to force it, but to simply let the truth shine forth. One day, when the rest of the world sees the “glory of Hashem revealed on us” (From the song, Lecha Dodi), that they will come to us, not we to them. Personally, even in my early days of discovering Judaism and when coming into contact with Jews whether in Israel or the US, I was extremely impressed at how the Jewish community did not assert and/or force their religion on others. Indeed, the true legacy of the hesed of Avraham is universal, but never imperialistic, forceful, or manipulative. (In my opinion should one wish to understand this better, one should read the Sages have to say about Psalm 67, which embodies the Jewish mission of being a light unto the nations.)
Indeed, if we are to be a true light unto the nations, we must know meditation better than the greatest zen master and/or guru. We must know spiritual and emotional passion greater than the most passionate protestant Christian. We must know the works of nature better than the most capable scientist. We must know the spiritual aura of nature better than the most advanced new age pagan and/or Hindu. We must know we must know submission to G-d better than the most devout Muslim, we must know earthly life better than the most greedy materialist. We must know war greater than the most capable warrior, and love of peace greater than the most passionate pacifist… All of which is to be found only in the Torah from Sinai.
And so the list goes on.
This most definitely is a tall order, which I believe will only happen when we come close to the ultimate redemption (Of which I personally believe we are on our way!) may it come quick, if not during the days of Mashiach. And yet, if we want to lay a strong foundation for such a redemption, I would assert that it all starts with the inner hesed of Avraham our father. The hesed that does not force truth upon another, but simply looks at others as soul sparks from Hashem, and loves them.
May we continue living the legacy of Avraham, our father.