An obscure midrash called Aseret Melakhim describes the reigns of ten kings who ruled or will rule over all of humanity, “from one end of the world until the other.” Among the stories and interpretations there appears the following account: “The eighth king is Alexander [the Great] of Macedon, who ruled from one end of the world until the other… Nor is this all, but he even tried to ascend to Heaven and discern what is there… Nor is this all, but he even tried to go to the Land of Darkness and discern what is there…”[i]
This is a fair legend, considering just how much Alexander did conquer. His short-lived empire extended from Greece to the Himalayas in the fourth century BCE, encompassing more than enough to qualify as “one end of the world until the other” for the classical-era author of this midrash. Alexander conquered his way to this author’s home from distant lands, and then just went on conquering. So far as we can tell historically, Alexander of Macedon was absolutely undefeated in battle.[ii] In the author’s imagination, even the boundaries of this world could not contain such a mighty leader. He marched his armies right up to Heaven to check out what was going on up there, then turned around and paid a visit to Hell.
The implications of such a claim cannot be overstated. The other-worldly realms and their sacred truths, inaccessible to most mere humans even through years of contemplation, seemed open to Alexander through his imperial power. In the larger context of this midrashic list, his domain surpasses even that of the King Messiah, and parallels only that of God Himself, the Creator of Heaven and Earth.
It sometimes seems that in the Jewish tradition, human political prestige exists on the same spectrum as the divine, maintaining the same sort of authority and differing from ultimate omnipotence in quantity rather than quality. We recite the berakhah of “she-halak mi-kevodo li-yere’av ([God] apportioned from His glory to those who fear Him)” upon seeing a Jewish king and “she-natan mi-kevodo le-basar va-dam ([God] gave from His glory to flesh and blood) upon seeing a Gentile king;[iii] in both cases, the political prestige of the human leader is identified as deriving from God’s own glory.
This special awe of human leadership becomes more nuanced in an age of democratic regimes, free speech, and the power of popular activism to influence government policy. Shades of the Alexandrian do still manifest occasionally, as in the twentieth-century demise of the mighty British Empire: The “Iron Lady,” UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, demonstrated this seeming anachronism when she spoke of the British failure in the 1956 Suez Crisis as sparking a “Suez Syndrome,” in which Britons “went from believing that Britain could do anything to an almost neurotic belief that Britain could do nothing.” This painful symptom of empire withdrawal was alleviated only, in Thatcher’s understanding, by the fierce 1982 military campaign in which Britain successfully protected its Falkland Islands possession from Argentinean assault.[iv]
But Thatcher’s attitude was of the Old Order, and imperial expansion is no longer in political vogue in the West. Our politics have a more liberal and equitable nature, even when they seem fraught with self-interest and power struggles. Today we are called upon, as individual citizens of independent nations, to participate in the political process as voters, activists, and elected leaders. And though earthly power has taken a new form since the time of Alexander, it remains a God-given establishment of sacred importance for Jews.
In this issue, Kol Hamevaser marks the recent American election season and its upcoming counterpart in Israel by exploring the interactions of Jewish values and law with the many expressions, methods, and products of public policy in Jewish experience.
[i] Midrash Aseret Melakhim (Hebrew) in Otsar Midrashim (Bibliotheca Midraschica), ed. by J.D. Eisenstein (New York: 1915), 463. Otsar Midrashim is a two-volume collection of small, obscure midrashim, many of which are difficult to find in any other compilation, published by Judah David Eisenstein. Each passage in the collection is introduced with information on all its traceable sources and textual variants. Midrash Aseret Melakhim is said to appear in certain editions of Yalkut Shim’oni on Sefer Melakhim and Pirkei de-Rabbi El’azar, but its best-known source is an earlier compilation called Beit Eked ha-Aggadot by a certain H.M. Horowitz. In that context, the order of kings is slightly different and the editor there postulates that the passage’s author lived a short time before the period of the ge’onim.
[ii] See, for instance, “Alexander the Great (356-323 BC),” BBC History, available at www.bbc.co.uk/history.
[iii] Berakhot 58b; Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Berakhot 10:11; Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 224:8.
[iv] “The Suez Crisis: An affair to remember,” The Economist, 27 June, 2006, available at www.economist.com.