The vivid image of angels ascending and descending the ladder in Jacob’s dream has been interpreted in many ways by many commentators. One famous midrash suggests that the angels represent prominent empires that would rule the world. (See for instance Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer ch. 25). Though mighty nations such as Babylonia, Persia, Greece and Rome (represented by his brother, Esau) would later ascend to a place over power over the Jewish people, Jacob was reassured by God that these nations, like all empires, were eventually fated to “descend” and fall. In much the same way, the rabbinic authors of these midrashim may have sought to reassure a beleagured Jewish people that the small Jewish nation yet lived while the empires that oppressed them (yes, even the mighty Roman Empire) inevitably disappeared into the annals of history.
This reminder should serve not only as a reassurance for nations at their lowest moments, but as a caution for empires at their mightiest. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, the United States has held tightly to a self-image of itself as the “world’s only superpower.” But we are increasingly coming to understand that even 21st century empires are subject to the ever-shifting sands of history.
For instance, journalist Roger Cohen recently wrote in the International Herald Tribune that we are currently witnessing the emergence “of a new bipolar world whose centers are in Washington and Bejing.” Analyst Charles A. Kupchan (“The End of the American Era”) and others point to the rising power and influence of the European Union. Much like the angels on Jacob’s ladder, the world now finds itself in the midst of a new pattern of “ascendancy” and “descendancy.”
Though every empire tends to view itself as the sine qua non of its time, history tends teaches us otherwise. In the end, as the Jewish people knows all too well, a nation’s longevity is determined by factors much deeper than mere power and might.