Haftarat Vayishlach: The Decline of the West


[Ovadiah, chapter 1]

 

In this week’s Haftarah we discover that the concept "The Decline of the West" did not originate with the German philosopher, Oswald Spengler, but with the prophet Ovadiah.  The prophet obviously does not use the expression "the West," but employs a parallel term from the Hebrew tradition: "Edom."  Esav is Edom, i.e. the father of the West.  As Rashi explains (on Bereshit 36:43), one of Esav’s princes, "Magdi'el," is Rome.

 

Based on the Tanachic-historical analysis of Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel, it may be that the early Christians were descendants of Edom, who were more-or-less forcibly converted to Judaism by King Herod, whose memory should be besmirched.  But even if the genealogical relationship is questionable, it is the spiritual relationship that is important for this discussion, and our Sages clearly identify Edom with Western Culture.

 

According to our Sages, Ovadiah himself was a righteous convert, a descendant of Edom (Rashi to Ovadiah 1:1).  He knew exactly what he was talking about. In the single chapter he bequeathed to us, he relates the ultimate collapse of Edom: "A vision of Ovadiah: Thus said Hashem, G-d, about Edom…Arise, and let us rise up against her in battle.  I have made you small among the nations.  You are greatly despised.  The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who dwell in the clefts of the rock, whose habitation is high, who says in his heart: who can bring me down to earth?...For on that day, says Hashem, I will cause the wise men of Edom to be lost, and understanding from the mountain of Esav…Because of your violence against your (i.e., Edom’s) brother Yaakov, shame will cover you, and you will be cut off forever…You should not have looked on the day of your brother's misfortune, and you should not have rejoiced over the children of Yehudah on the day of their destruction" (Ovadiah 1:1, 2, 3, 8, 10, 12).

 

If we return to the philosopher Oswald Spengler, we see that he was pessimistic, and rejected the idea of humanity’s advancement.  He arrogantly claimed that the Jewish Nation had completed its historical role and was in the process of disappearing from the earth's stage.  He emphasized that there is an essential contrast between the Nation of Israel and the German nation – the latter being the point of Edom’s sword.  According to his opinion, there would be an unavoidable collision between the young German culture, rooted in its land, and the senile, cosmopolitan, homeless Jewish culture.  But amazingly, as revealed each day before the nations of the world, the three-thousand year old Nation, despite its suffering and Exile, has the youthfulness which allows it to be reborn in its Land, while Europe is in a process of dissolving and being consumed by despair.

 

The Decline of the West will occur not because human history will stumble, but on the contrary, because it will succeed.