All Roads Lead to Rome
If the Romans did one thing right - they made great roads. Roman roads are still in use to this day. Why were the Romans so interested in building such long-lasting and straight roads?
We live in a world where we increasingly "let our fingers do the walking". From a portable cell-phone equipped with a web browser, you can conduct business on three continents without leaving the beach. (Just make sure that you don't spill your banana daiquiri on your cell-phone.)
Increasingly, the word 'communication' has come to mean electronic contact as opposed to flesh and blood meeting.
One of the prerequisites of rulership is communication. The Romans built quick straight roads because they needed to know and dominate what was happening in the far corners of their empire. Size is a function of the ability to conquer space. We talk of the world getting smaller even though its still some 24,000 miles around. The 'size' of the world is in direct proportion to our ability to span the globe, both physically and electronically. Even though the Roman Empire occupied little more than Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, in comparative terms it was probably the largest empire that ever existed, because the world was a very large place in those days.
Communications is an instrument of government. The Romans used the roads to rule. The inheritors of their empire use the electronic media.
Imperial domination, however, can take the form of more than brute force and tax collection. Most of the wars in history have been either about trade or religion. And religious wars are about the imposition of a certain weltanshung - a cosmology. "We see the world this way - and if you want to stay in this world you'd better see it that way too." The sword is often the ultimate theological argument.
The imposition of the religion of the imperial power is an expression of its cultural domination. In our era, the cultural domination of the heirs of the Empire is the Coca-Cola sign hanging beside the Inca Trail on the way to Macchu Picchu; it's a giant MacDonald's 'M' in the shadow of the Taj Mahal.
The brilliance of American consumerism is that it bonds into a cohesive whole, a country of 4 time zones, vastly different geography and weather, let alone culture and religion. Whether you come from Biloxie or Topeka, Encino or Nantucket, however far you are from home, you can always look out your car window and feel right at home looking at the same icons you left behind: Best Western; Burger King; Holiday Inn; Stuckeys. The same familiar landscape - the landscape of Empire. Television performs the same function: It binds the nation together. Wherever you are, you're in the same transcontinental parochial meeting house.
Broadcast television is such a powerful tool, and it's so much a part of our cultural language, that people frequently suggest it as a means of spreading Torah values. There is an idea that we can reach many of our brothers and sisters who have become estranged from Judaism by making TV documentaries for broadcast television about the Torah and the Torah way of life. Another idea is that those who have had conspicuous success in the secular world, whether in the arts, business or science should make their stories into TV docudramas. (One can well imagine the sort of title which would emerge: "From Wall Street to the Western Wall, etc.)
It seems to me that such projects are doomed from their very inception. Have you ever seen Orthodox Jews look anything other that weird on the media? Why is that? Why is it that only Muslims look exotic and picturesque against all those Lawrence of Arabia sand-dunes? Why is it that Kodachrome loves every African or Indian cult whereas the People of the Book are singularly unphotogenic? Why is it that we seem parochial and rather shabby when exposed to the glare of the TV's gaze?
Our Sages teach that the Jewish People will experience four exiles. These exiles are hinted to in the very opening lines of the Torah. "And the Land was formless (Babylon) and void (Persia/Medea) and darkness (Greece) on the face of the deep (Rome)." Since the Torah is the blueprint of the world, something written at the very beginning of the blueprint indicates that these exiles are a fundamental process in history of the world.
The first of these four kingdoms took the kingship from the Jewish People. Each empire has successively grabbed the mantle of power from its predecessor. Ultimately the fourth empire, the empire of Eisav/Rome and its current heirs, will return kingship to the Jewish People. Until that time however, the fourth kingdom has the power of the kingship and all its trappings: It writes the songs of the world, for music is a scion of kingship: King David, the prototype of all kings, is called the 'sweet singer of Israel'. But the lyre of David breathes the songs of majesty no more.
When the Jewish People went into this last exile, the exile of Rome, the Temple songs of the Levi'im were silenced. The Romans took that music and made it serve a new master. It re-surfaced hundreds of years later as the Gregorian chants of the church.
If music and religion are but two aspects of imperial cultural domination, television is the ultimate form of this thrall: Television is the dream factory which allows the ruling power to foist its world-view on its vassal states. It places the minds of its subjects in a cultural iron mask. Wherever you can put up a satellite antenna and beam down a Big Mac from the sky - there the empire rules.
The Romans built the best roads in the world. But if they were alive today, they would be producing Seinfeld. Television is an instrument of kingship. The kingship is not ours at the moment. This is not just a physical reality, it's a mystical reality. It means that when we attempt, as the Jewish People, to take hold of the reins of kingship, be that music or the television, we must inevitably look ridiculous and fail.
The Kingdom of Heaven is mirrored in the kingdom of Earth. The Jewish People are in their darkest exile and the Divine Presence is in that exile with us. This is an exile of such totality that most of us don't even realize that we are in exile. We have almost totally accepted upon ourselves the yoke of the empire, its icons and its ideas. We are glued to their visions. We wear their clothes. We think their thoughts.
Between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we refer to G-d in our prayers as the Holy King. We crown him in absentia, for there is little that we can see which bespeaks His Majesty. He is in exile, doubly hidden in a world where materialism and selfishness are the twin rulers.
We long for the day when this fourth kingdom will have run its course and the kingship will return to the Jewish People. For on that day, Hashem will be One and His Name One, and His people who proclaim twice daily His Oneness will be seen in their splendor, risen from the sackcloth of ages.