The Writing on the Wall
For behold I am arousing and bringing up upon Babylon an alliance of great nations from the north land, and they will set themselves in array against her – from there she will be taken; his arrows are like those of an intelligent warrior, none will be wasted.
The leader of Persia will attack an Arab nation and the Arab king will go to Aram for advice. The leader of Persia will bring destruction to the entire world, and all nations will be outraged and confused… and they will say, “Where shall we come and go?” G-d will answer them: “My children, do not be afraid, everything I have done, I have done for you. Why are you afraid? Do not fear, the time of your Redemption has arrived.
Yalkut Shemoni Isaiah, remez 499
Many Iraqis can hear me tonight in a translated radio broadcast, and I have a message for them: If we must begin a military campaign, it will be directed against the lawless men who rule your country and not against you.
As our coalition takes away their power, we will deliver the food and medicine you need. We will tear down the apparatus of terror and we will help you to build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free. In free Iraq there will be no more wars of aggression against your neighbors, no more poison factories, no more executions of dissidents, no more torture chambers and rape rooms.
The tyrant will soon be gone. The day of your liberation is near.
President Bush in his Monday night address to the nation
On Purim eve (Monday night) President Bush gave Iraq/Babylon/Persia a 48 hour ultimatum which ended on the night of Shushan Purim (Wednesday night).
Unexpectedly, as if a Higher hand was at work insisting that the battle begin on Shushan Purim, the attack began earlier after intelligence reports caused the administration to bomb a leadership command bunker in Baghdad with the hope of killing Saddam Hussein, his sons and some of his inner circle (as of this writing we do not yet know whether the bombing was successful).
Now, we all know that the story of Purim took place in this precise geographic region, which was then under the rule of the Persian King Achashverosh. The Persian Empire had several years earlier conquered Babylon. In the book of Daniel (chapter 5) we read about the fall of Babylon. Babylonian King Belshazzar – a grandson of Nevuchadnezzar (who destroyed the First Temple) – throws a party using the holy vessels that his grandfather had plundered from the Holy Temple. During the party Belshazzar sees the “writing on the wall” (hence the contemporary euphemism for obvious and impending doom), and that same night he is slain, followed by the Persian conquest of Babylon. And this destruction is a result of Babylon’s arrogant celebration:
“Because you were glad, because you rejoiced, robbers of my heritage.” (Jeremiah 50:11. See Malbim)
A few years later Persian King Achashverosh replays the same scenario. He too throws a party displaying all the vessels he had pillaged. Achashverosh is actually compared to Nevuchadnezzar and also to Belshazzar; both Achashverosh and Belshazzar miscalculated the 70 years of the Babylonian exile and thought that the time had already passed for the Temple to be rebuilt; both threw parties (Talmud Megillah 11a-b). By now we know the end of that story – the miracle of Purim. Haman (who plotted with Achashverosh) like Belshazzar is destroyed. Several years later Koresh (Cyrus) gives the Jews permission to rebuild the second Temple (Ezra chapter 1).
And now, on the night of Shushan Purim (Shushan is the capital of Persia), “an alliance of great nations from the north land” (Jeremiah 50:9. See also 50:3), “from the farthest parts of the earth” (50:41) attack modern day Babylon and Persia. Indeed, Saddam Hussein modeled himself after Nevuchadnezzar who destroyed the Holy Temple. On various occasions Saddam considered himself as a successor to the Babylonian king.
In 1979, he was quoted by his semi-official biographer as saying:
“Nevuchadnezzar stirs in me everything relating to pre-Islamic ancient history. And what is most important to me about Nevuchadnezzar is the link between the Arabs’ abilities and the liberation of Palestine. Nevuchadnezzar was, after all, an Arab from Iraq, albeit ancient Iraq. … That is why whenever I remember Nevuchadnezzar I like to remind the Arabs, Iraqis in particular, of their historical responsibilities. It is a burden that should… spur them into action because of their history.”
Saddam Hussein had a replica of Nevuchadnezzar’s war chariot built and had himself photographed standing in it. He ordered images of himself and Nevuchadnezzar beamed, side by side, into the night sky over Baghdad as part of a laser light show. He has spent millions rebuilding the ancient site of Babylon, Nevuchadnezzar’s capital city. He restored part of Nevuchadnezzar’s 600-room palace, and atop some of the original bricks, marked with Nevuchadnezzar’s name, are others that declare, “In the era of Saddam Hussein, protector of Iraq, who rebuilt the Royal Palace.”
The dots continue to accumulate…
If that’s not enough, consider that Iraq is the area where the Garden of Eden was located, as the Bible describes the location in juxtaposition to the four rivers, Pishon, Gihon, Tigris and the Euphrates (Genesis 2:11-14). The area of present day Iraq was called Mesopotamia, which means (in Greek) ‘between the rivers.’
Indeed, the Midrash associates the four rivers with the four kingdoms that would dominate the world, the Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman empires (Vayikra Rabba 13:5).
When you connect the dots it becomes very clear that they lead us back to thousands of years ago, and even back to the beginning of history itself. How fascinating is it that the focus of battle today is back where it all began – with Adam and Eve!
Even the greatest skeptic will be hard pressed to chalk all this up to coincidence.
Thousands of years have passed since ancient Babylon and Persia. Yet, the events are uncannily the same. Same locations, same time of year, same challenges, just different names.
By no means am I suggesting that we just draw a simplistic parallel between the American confrontation with Iraq and the confrontation in the past with Haman and Persia. That would be naive and one-dimensional. Self interest on all sides does not allow us to simply say that one side is all good and the other all evil.
Rather we should be looking to history to understand the true nature of today’s war. Above all, the United States can learn critical lessons from the past – from Purim.
The United States is standing at a crossroads. One rule prevails throughout history: all superpowers and global empires ultimately fall. As great as they were at their peaks, they all collapsed, without exception. Why should the United States be different?
The answer lies in the secret of Purim. The most telling moment in the entire story is the fact that Mordechai refused to bow to Haman. This infuriated Haman to the point that he determined to have all the Jews destroyed. Mordechai was demonstrating the secret to eternal victory: True humility. Not conforming – not bowing to anything except G-d.
Indeed, in the entire Megillah the Jews are called with the unique name “Yehudim,” “Yehudi,” from the word ‘hodaah,’ acknowledgement – the absolute bittul and self suspension to a force greater than your own self. Mordechai ha’Yehudi embodied this personality – the personality that defines true freedom. Nothing, absolutely nothing can intimidate you, because you don’t worship anything man-made. You bow to no one except to G-d.
This is the secret of eternity. When you are dedicated to yourself – as great as you may be, as special as you may be, ultimately you are only as strong as your resources allow you. And since you are mortal and impermanent, your survival will also be mortal and temporary. When you dedicate yourself to a cause beyond yourself – and bow to nothing else, when you connect to an eternal cause – then you too become eternal.
The ultimate reason for the fall of all empires is: Arrogance. No matter how it manifested itself in history, and it clearly took on many different shapes, dominant powers eventually self destructed due to their own arrogance. Occupation, imperialism or just plain tyranny – not driven by any cause greater than individual interests, ego and power – are some examples of this arrogance.
Note the emphasis on Babylon’s arrogance as cause for their destruction in the abovementioned chapter 50 in Jeremiah.
So as America goes to war on Shushan Purim it can learn much from the original Purim. Above all, the need for ultimate humility. The more powerful and dominant this country is – and the more fear and suspicion it arouses in other nations – the more humble this country has to be in appreciating the gifts that it has been blessed with.
President Bush and this entire nation is standing at a crossroads: Will we use our overwhelming military and economic might to create more markets for McDonalds and Coca Cola. Or will we use it to help other countries independently discover their destiny under G-d without the threat and fear of oppressive dictators.
Will we use a shock and awe campaign (or the threat of one) to just intimidate the world, or will we demonstrate that our greatest power is our ability to humbly challenge our power into a force of virtue and equality.
Will President Bush’s words “The day of your liberation is near” be just another cliché or will these words carry the deeper message of the Midrash: “The time of your Redemption has arrived?”
No doubt that self interest – whether financial, leaving a legacy or some other interest – can blind even the most benevolent leader. Using the name of G-d to justify one’s cause can easily turn into a self-righteous arrogance. The challenge here is to learn from Purim and reconnect to the roots of the nation’s hard won independence – recognizing the inalienable Divine right of all human beings, in all nations, of all races, cultures, religions and beliefs.
The Founding Fathers of the United States would have preferred to have lived in peace under English rule. However they were forced – due to British arrogance – to fight for their independence. They did not establish this country merely to create economic opportunities; they wanted a nation that would allow people to live freely – freedom of religion, freedom of expression and all the basic freedoms each person is entitled to. Economic opportunity became a natural result of this freedom, not the other way around.
They also clearly knew the risks of power, they had seen it first hand, and did everything in their power to ensure that arrogance would not dominate the governance of this country.
Now, 227 years later, the experiment of the United States has succeeded beyond anyone’s imagination. The prosperity of this nation has created an unprecedented force, never before seen in history.
But with this power comes this nation’s greatest challenge. At its inception, the United States had nothing else except its passion for freedom. Now that it has become so prosperous – the danger of arrogance looms, and with it – the destiny and future of this great country hangs in the balance.
For now, we must pray for the success of the war effort for a righteous cause, pray for the safety of all those fighting the war and for protection of all innocent people. May this war end quickly, with the least amount of blood shed.
But our greatest responsibility is to understand the true meaning of this war. As war begins on Shushan Purim, the uncanny timing and location of today’s events cannot be ignored.
Just like in the time of Purim, events today have led us back to the cradle of civilization. To the place on Earth where Adam and Eve began the human journey. To the region where Abraham, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah were born. The events in the first 2000 years of Genesis all take place in this area.
We are led back to this place ‘between the rivers’ for a reason. It helps us connect the dots.
The dots are very clear today: The war began on Shushan Purim. The coming days – that link Purim to Passover are days of redemption. It is on our hands, we are told, to bring the redemption into reality.
It’s interesting to note, that the actual miracle of Purim takes place in a matter of one day – the second day of Passover. On the 13thof Nissan the decree is sealed and sent out to the entire Persian empire. The next three days Esther declares a fast, concluding with Haman’s hanging on the third night of Passover (16 Nissan at night).
We must closely watch the events of the coming days. I don’t mean watch the events as they unfold on the battlefield or watch the endless chatter on CNN or MSNBC – but watch the connecting dots of history and learn from them. But not just watch, but actually connect the dots – and ensure that these events do help bring redemption to the world.
A sound of battle is in the land (Jeremiah 50:22). As we face the sound, may we learn from battles past what constitutes true victory.
So watch closely the events in the coming days leading to Passover.
Can we read the writing on the wall?