The Edomite Nation in Our Time
Jill and I spent Thanksgiving in Manhattan last November. It was interesting to see this very American [yes I know the Canadians do it too] secular-religious festival, of which I have heard a great deal, from close up. From what I understand Thanksgiving bears some similarity to Sukkot, the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, in it being an [ingathering of the] Harvest Festival. Both contain an element of thanking God following the end of the summer and thus the "picking season", for the abundance He has provided. But the resemblance ends there.
Since returning to Israel, I have intended to transcribe some of my thoughts of the Thanksgiving experience, but it's taken me a few months to set my perceptions down "on paper". I know this is going to be controversial, and some of you may (figuratively) violently disagree with my take. That's fine -- please feel free to write to me. I am always happy to put other positions up, here on the site.
But let me say at the outset that any holiday encouraging families to get together, as Thanksgiving does in a big way, be it religious or secular, is praiseworthy.
It is worth noting that the feature of Thanksgiving in New York City is the annual Macy's Parade. Thousands line Broadway from the Natural History Museum in 79th St all the way to Macy's in 34th St for a glimpse of the colourful procession. Since 1924, Santa Claus is welcomed into Herald Square, alongside Macy's, marking the end the pageant.
So, in classic American style, even this quasi religious holiday has a strong commercial link. Thanksgiving used to take place on the last Thursday of November until Franklin D. Roosevelt changed it to the fourth Thursday of the month; the difference being in years (two out of seven) when November has five Thursdays -- in this way the "shopping season", leading up to the "holiday season", starts a week earlier/is a week longer.
The day after Thanksgiving in America is known as Black Friday. No-one seems to know why -- diverse explanations are offered. The most popular seems to relate this day to being the first day of the shopping season -- the sheer volume of sales on this one day is sufficient to return most retail businesses to "the black", viz. profitably, after the quiet summer.
To ensure a successful retail trading day, most businesses offer deep discounts on popular items. It is supposed to be the cheapest shopping day of the year. Many stores open as early as 5:30 a.m., and often a mad rush is already outside at that early hour, awaiting the doors to open. People awake extra early in order to benefit a "real" bargain. I witnessed long, though orderly queues outside many shops which opened later in the day. Given the shabby state of the economy, I am told prices were even lower than in previous years.
We arrived at Macy's at around 8:15 and the department store was crowded, but not overly so. We were able to return, following only a short wait, some items we bought on Wednesday, and even to receive the "additional Black Friday" discount on items purchased earlier in the week, in cash.
By 10:30 though, Macy's was close to pandemonium, and management deployed employees as traffic police, controlling the crowds boarding and alighting the escalators. By then, streets in the area were filling rapidly.
It was only later that we heard the tragic news of a temporary store assistant at a Wal-Mart branch in the greater New York area. She had a bit of trouble opening the stuck front door when the branch commenced trading at 5:30 a.m. A large crowd was "waiting" impatiently, pressing heavily on the door. As the door burst open, the poor lady was insufficiently agile in avoiding the fast moving, oncoming mass of humanity; the "shoppers" just ran over the top of her in their frenzy to reach, a.s.a.p., the flat screen TV department, just inside the entrance. They literally trampled her to death. And as she lay there, on the floor of the store, gasping her last pained breathes, ignored by the multitude, the "shoppers" were almost violently arguing about which of them had reached the monitor first, totally oblivious to shop assistant's fate.
This event shocked some in America and the Press were quick to attempt to apportion blame, though I didn't feel from the responses that too many were all that concerned.
The New York rabbi at the synagogue I attended the next day, on Shabbath, used this "murder" as the theme of his weekly sermon.
Before I relate the rabbi's point of view, I digress slightly to point out some characteristics of the Edomite nation. The Edomites are the descendants of the biblical Esau, son of Isaac, and fraternal twin brother, though very dissimilar, of Jacob. From the biblical account, Esau intermarried with the local population of Seir, a region south-east of Israel, where he settled after Jacob's return from his father-in-law's house in Mesopotamia.
The Edomite nation employed an interesting form of government for its time. It was, in modern terms, similar to many Western democracies, specifically the U.S. and countries of western Europe. Edom was ruled by a king, who perhaps, though not certainly, was a lifelong ruler. His offspring did not inherited his monarchy. The Torah relates that Edom had "eight kings before there was one in Israel" [Genesis 36], viz, Moses, whom we are told was "King in Yeshurun", Yeshurun being a synonym for Israel. Each of these kings originated from a different region of the country, and was unrelated to his predecessor. In addition to a king, Edom was governed by tribal, or regional, princes -- in our parlance, governors. The Torah gives these governors the title aluf.
Another encounter with Edom, recorded in the Bible in Numbers XX, takes place as the Children of Israel approach their final destination, after wandering the desert for forty years. The highway along which the Israelites now travel, passes directly though Edomite territory. As they are not intent on making with this "brother" nation, Moshe sends a message to the King of Edom, sitting in Kadesh, requesting free passage, and even offering to pay for any incidental, accidentally incurred, expenses. The request is met by refusal, but not by the King. The refusal comes from "Edom", in other words from the people of Edom. The rejection was accompanied by a heavy military build up on the border, "And Edom came out against him [Israel] with much people, and a strong hand". Certainly not every individual Edomite sent a messenger to Moses, nor did every Edomite arrive at the boundary. There was representative group who was authorised to answer on behalf of the entire nation, including on behalf of the King. Today we call this parliament.
From this Biblical history, our rabbis derive that one of the characteristics of Edom is a hatred of malchuth, of kingship, of absolute monarchy, of the divine right of kings, a hatred of being ruled over, continuously, by one man or by one family. Individual Edomites desire a continuing say in their destiny.
Rome too was governed in similar fashion. Emperors were generally not descended from the previous incumbent. Regional governors and executive magistrates were powerful. A Senate provided further checks and balances.
And we find an identical sentiment in the American Declaration of Independence. Determining our own national destiny and the detestation of a king [historically George III of England]. The American model of monarchy is that of a "temporary" monarchy. Four years -- perhaps eight years, but no more. One "king" ruled in Washington for sixteen years, and the Americans changed the rules of the game -- eight years and not a day more. Not even one additional hour!
How did Edom arrive in Rome? Our Rabbis identify Rome with Edom. All prophesies mentioning Edom, they tell us, refer to Rome.
It seems that the Romans, in order to beef up their military, to build a force to conquer most of the known world, hired mercenaries, soldiers of fortune. Edomite warriors were happy to fill this role. Many of them enlisted, in fact. So many that they eventually took over Rome. Today's Italy is inhabited by two distinct populations, darker, semiticlike people in the south and fair skinned people in the north.
And with the "end" of the Roman Empire, "new" Romans continued their existence in different guises. I would postulate that a number nations of Edomite origin exist today, including Italy, Germany, France, and the United States of America. I shall not detail at this stage how this came about, the various flows of immigrants, but these nations all possess some Edomite credentials, principally their "democratic" system. Government by the people for the people -- not a negative trait, if implemented fairly and equally c.f. Jefferson's "natural right to govern".
Now back to our rabbi's shabbat sermon. He decried the death of the Wal-Mart salesperson. He drew an analogy between American consumerism and that week's Torah portion, Toldoth. In this reading, Jacob is cooking a broth of red lentils, symbolic food for his mourning father -- a Midrash tells us Abraham died that day. A tired and hungry Esau returns from a hunting expedition. He is famished. He smells the cheap, simple soup his twin brother is preparing to give their father following their grandfather's funeral. Looks like Esau missed that one too.
Esau enters and says, "Give me from that red, red food -- now right now -- I can't wait -- I'll die of starvation". Jacob tells him that if he waits another few minutes, he'll give him some of the bread that is now in the oven, and perhaps a nice cup of tea too! Maybe even a scone?
But Esau, in a fit of instant gratification and a frenzy of mad consumerism, says "Now -- I want it now! I must have it now". No matter what the cost! And he did pay a high price, which he later regretted.
The rabbi compared this Esavian trait of instant gratification and out of control frenzied consumerism to what occurred a day earlier, saying that, as the young lady lay dying amongst "them", the out of hand consumers wanted their television set -- NOW! No matter at what cost to human dignity nor in the human suffering, literally lying under their feet.
This is a feature of Edom which I had not previously connected to the Western, lead by American, consumer culture. And there it was, in the week's portion, in black ink on white parchment. Esau wants whatever it is he wants, immediately -- NOW. The real cost does not concern him, nor does he logically think through the consequences of his acquisitions. He is driven to have that bowl of worthless soup -- and "another" television -- NOW, immediately, forthwith, without delay! "Give me."
The rabbi continued, "But we are not really like that. We are a sympathetic, caring people. We brought brotherly love to the world. We teach the world to aid the downtrodden, pick up the fallen, cure the sick, free the persecuted, bring hope to the tyrannised. And we do all of this without expecting anything in return. Altruistically. Charitably. Benevolently." I was impressed. Yes, I too was proud of the Jewish people's contribution to humankind, restoring to a wild world the true face of humanity, fulfilling our Godgiven potential, our priestly role in the world. Here was an American rabbi, addressing an American Jewish audience [I was probably the only non-American citizen in attendance], describing our moral superiority to an Edomite dominated world.
But no -- shock, horror -- the learned rabbi was not referring to the magnificent contribution the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob have brought to mankind. He was describing the contribution of the children of Esau. The rabbi ruined it, at least for me. As an Israeli, I suppose my mindset is different, foreign to an American way of thinking.
He went on to describe America's "great" contribution to the world's welfare. He considered what had happened the previous day in Wal-Mart to be an aberration, atypical of a caring American society.
America -- altruistic? Really? Never caring about a reward. Never looking for a profit. Working only for the benefit of the world? For all of humanity!
Wow! I guess I had it all wrong all these years.
And to round out the analogy, Rome once had an emperor born in [North] Africa to a Roman mother and a black African father. His name was Septimus Serevus. It seems Roman Emperors didn't have to be born in Rome.
4th December, 2008
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