From Pachad Yitzchak, by Rav Yitzchak Hutner

The initial exile of the Jewish people is laid out in the Torah as early as the "covenant between the parts" that Hashem makes with Avraham (Bereishit 15). While this covenant speaks about one specific case of exile, the Sages see within this episode a reference to the four major exile that the Jewish people underwent throughout their history. They see the verse "and behold a great and dark fear fell" on Avraham (15:12) as a reference to the exiles of Babylonia, Media/Persia, Greece, and Rome.

What is noteworthy at first glance is the omission of the descendant of Yishmael (i.e. the Arab nations) from this list, even though the Jews were subject to Muslim control at various points in history. In his work Ner Mitzva, the Maharal deals with this issue. He writes that the four exiles mentioned all fit one of two criteria: either they wrested power from the Jews directly, or they took over from another nation that had already done the task of overpowering and subjugating the Jews. Since the descendants of Yishmael never took power in either of these two ways, they are not included by the Sages among the list of exiles.

We find in the writings of the Sages that the conflict between Yaakov and Eisav, between the Jews and the Romans, is based on the concept of "when one goes up the other goes down." Already when Rivka was pregnant with the twins she was told that one would rule over the other. On the other hand, the struggle between Yitzchak and Yishmael was never characterized in such a fashion. At no point do the Sages tell us that in order for the Jews to have power the Arabs have to be subjugated, and vice versa.

This difference can perhaps be understood from a historical perspective. Avraham had Yitzchak and Yishmael - one chosen son and one rejected son. Yitzchak had Yaakov and Eisav - one chosen son and one rejected son. Yaakov, by contrast, had twelve sons, all of whom were chosen to be a part of the nation of Hashem. As such, beginning with that generation there is no longer an intertwining of purity and impurity, of the chosen and the rejected. Rather, those who are pure stand alone, and those who are cast off and are impure stand opposite them. The enemies of the nation formed from Yaakov's children can thus gain ascendancy only when the Jews fall. The death of one is the life-water of the other. By contrast, the opposition embodied by Yishmael does not fit into this pattern. Yishmael can oppose the Jews, but can also succeed even while the Jews are succeeding, something which is not true of the descendants of Eisav.

This model can explain the fact that the miracle of Purim is defined by the words "v'nahafoch hu" - everything turned upside-down. The Persian reign of terror over the Jews could only end by the Jews rising up and the Persians falling from their high position of power.

Before the covenant between the parts, the Torah tells us of Avraham's involvement in the war of the four kings against the five kings. Ramban notes that the four kings are a symbol of the four nations that would subjugate the Jews. One of the kings is known as "Tid'al Melech Goyim," which Ramban explains to mean that he was the ruler of many nations (goyim). The Midrash claims that this refers to Edom (Rome), which controlled many other nations via diplomatic tactics. Unlike nations that came before it, Rome cast an extremely wide net and spread its influence to many countries.

The first instance of Edom spreading its influence can be found at the time of the Persian domination of the Jews, when Haman (a descendant of Amalek, who descends from Eisav) took control of the power in the kingdom, convincing Achashveirosh to grant him free reign in deciding the fate of the Jews of the kingdom. This influence spread in the succeeding exiles, to the point where the Roman empire influenced not just one other king, but many rulers the world over (this is the exile in which we still live today). Thus, the progression goes from the Babylonian exile, where there was no second nation involved, to the Persian exile, where Amalek combines forces with Persia, to the Roman exile, where many nations are involved and complicit in the oppression of the Jews.

At this point the Greek exile seems to stick out, as it seems to ruin the progression. It appears that there was no second nation involved in the Greek control of Israel, and thus it seems that after the Persian-Amalekite axis the exiles took a step back and became more lenient, before becoming strict again under the rule of the Romans.

However, viewed from a different perspective we will see that this is not so. Going back to the idea of when one goes up the other goes down, we can see that there was no need for Greece to combine with any other power, since Greece itself involved a threat that was greater than that posed by any nation that came before it. The exile imposed by the Greeks was not a physical exile (the Jews remained in Israel), but rather an intellectual exile. The Greeks sought to banish the Torah and replace it with their wisdom and philosophy. However, the wisdom of the Torah is not a wisdom that sits idly by. It seeks to appoint kings and to receive a level of honor comparable to that afforded to royalty. As such, it cannot make room for a second intellectual "king." Thus, there is room only for one - either Torah is the premiere wisdom or Greek philosophy is - if one is up, the other must be down. There is thus no need for a second nation in this exile - the threat of Greece all alone is sufficient.

Returning back to Bereishit 15:12. The Sages claim that the word "fear" refers to Babylonia, "darkness" to Persia, and "great" to Greece. The novelty of the Persian exile over the Babylonian one was the new threat of the Jews having to fall in order for the Persians to rise up. The novelty of the Greek exile in relation to the Persian one was in its greatness, its magnitude. Even more of a threat than merely the Persian kingdom rising up at the expense of the Jews autonomy was the threat of the Greek wisdom and way of life replacing the way of life set out by our holy Torah.

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