Beit Midrash

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Tyrants of the Past


Rabbi Yossef Carmel

In our parasha, we meet the legendary and infamous leader Nimrod, who founded Ninveh and was the leader of the Assyrian Empire. He opposed Avraham, who taught mankind the principles of monotheism. Their confrontation reached its pinnacle when Nimrod tried to kill Avraham in the furnace at Ur Kasdim, as is hinted at in the end of the parasha.
This parasha also tells the story of the generation of the Tower of Babel. The tower, with a "top in the heavens," is the symbol of rebellion against the Creator. Chazal identify Nimrod as the builder of the tower (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 24). Some say that the biblical Nimrod is the king that historians call Sargon I.
The prophet Yeshaya wrote a scathing prophecy aimed at Bavel (also known as Masa Ashur). The prophecy (Yeshaya 14: 12-20) speaks about someone who viewed himself as being in the heavens, above the stars, or on the highest mountain, and even said: "I will liken myself to He Who Is Above." The prophet informs him that he will be lowered to a deep pit and indeed into the grave. Indications are that Yeshaya was talking about Sargon II, the emperor of the powerful Assyrian empire many centuries after Nimrod operated in the region. Sargon II captured Samaria and exiled the Ten Tribes, who lived in the region and constituted the majority of the Israelite nation. This prophecy foresaw the fall of the ruthless and haughty Sargon II from greatness to a pit.
It is possible that this pit refers to a jail, as it is called in the story of Yosef, or it can refer to a grave. Each one seems to have support from different phrases within the prophecy. It is likely that both are true. First, the king was imprisoned. Later on, he was killed in the field of battle.
Yeshaya’s prophecy, over a century before the destruction of the Temple, could be talking about the downfall of the Assyrian king in Yeshaya’s time period. However, it can also be a prophecy much further in the future, aimed at Nevuchadnetzar, the King of Bavel, who was responsible for the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. Rashi, following Chazal, adopts the latter approach.
Study of the Book of Daniel indicates that Nevuchadnetzar saw himself as a "spiritual" successor of Nimrod. He also built an idol, apparently a very tall one, upon which he sat as people bowed down before him. Just as Avraham rebelled against Nimrod, Chanaya, Mishael, and Azarya refused to take part in Nevuchadnetzar’s rebellion against Hashem. Just as Nimrod threw Avraham into a furnace, so did Nevuchadnetzar throw the three righteous men into the fire, but they escaped unscathed and thereby sanctified Hashem’s Name. Nevuchadnetzar found himself in a prison and was also exhumed from his grave (see Rashi to Yeshaya 14 and Daniel 3-4). The great, great grandchildren of Avraham continue his way in life, clinging to belief in monotheism and prepared to give their lives for it.
History is replete with stories of all-powerful leaders who build great towers and fantasize about ruling the universe. At the end, Hashem puts them in their places and ensures the continuity of the Jewish Nation. May we also see our haughty enemies fall, as Hashem saves us from their hands.
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