Nimrod - Self Worship
One of the most nefarious characters who appears in the Torah and Rabbinic literature is Nimrod, the sworn enemy of Abraham and the man who led the ill-fated attempt to build the Tower of Babel. On a superficial level it would seem that Nimrod's evil was so great that there is nothing that a normal human being can learn from him. However, on deeper analysis we can develop a more sophisticated understanding of where this powerful man went astray, and thereby apply it to our own lives.
The Rabbis provide us with the clues to deepening our understanding: The Gemara in Chullin contrasts the righteous Jewish leaders with the most powerful non-Jewish rulers in the history of mankind. "The Holy One, Blessed is He, said to Israel, 'I desire you because even at the time that I give you greatness, you humble yourselves; I gave greatness to Abraham, and he said before me, 'I am dust and ashes'; to Moses and Aaron, they said, 'what are we'? to David, he said, 'I am a worm and not a man' But the idol worshippers are not like this. I gave greatness to Nimrod, he said, 'let us build a city..." (1) The Gemara refers to the Dor Haflaga (the generation of dispersal) when Nimrod ruled the world, and instead of thanking God for his power, he led the endeavor to build the Tower of Babel. The purpose of this building was to 'fight' with God for the control of the world.
The Gemara in Chagiga further stresses Nimrod's attitude towards God. It says that the name, Nimrod, derives from the word, mered, which means rebellion. This is to teach us that Nimrod sought to cause the world to rebel against God. The Gemara then connects Nimrod with another mighty leader, Nebuchadnezzar, describing the latter as Nimrod's descendant. The Maharsha explains that they were not necessarily related genetically but that both had the same attitude in that they tried to 'compete' with the Almighty.(2) One final Midrash states simply that Nimrod set himself up as a deity and designated a place for his worship.(3)
All these sources have a common theme. They teach that Nimrod was granted exceedingly great power from God, but instead of humbling himself he allowed himself to become arrogant and thereby reject the concept of One God that Abraham taught the world. The logical extension of arrogance is self-deification - that is considering oneself to be on the level of a 'god'. The term 'god' refers to a force that has great powers and is the source for one's happiness (and according to some belief systems it can be the source for one's misery as well).
Self-deification was a logical extension of the regular form of paganism that was prevalent for millennia. The idol worshippers, led by Nimrod, viewed the world in a straightforward fashion - they saw that there were numerous sources of power, such as the sun, the rain, the Nile etc therefore they 'worshipped' each source in the hope that the source would provide them what they needed.
The rare people who attained great power such as Nimrod took this approach to its logical conclusion and believed that they themselves were the source of good for the world. Therefore it is understandable that they promoted worship of themselves. It is also obvious why Nimrod was so antagonistic to Abraham's monotheism. This belief promoted the idea that there is only One Source to all the powers in the world, including the sun, moon, and Nimrod himself! Nimrod could not accept this threat to his ego and therefore fought to destroy Abraham and his God.
It seems that all of Nimrod's actions were geared to the end of destroying Abraham and monotheism. The Rabbis tell us that the one of the Kings of the four nations who began the first war was none other than Nimrod himself, although the Torah gives him another name, Amrafel. The Gemara tells us that this refers to the words, 'amar pol' (he said, 'fall') that Nimrod said to Abraham when he threw him into the fiery furnace.(4) Why did the Torah choose to make this allusion at this point in particular - the war that Nimrod initiated seems to have nothing at all to do with Abraham and his beliefs! It seems that an essential aspect of Nimrod and his cohorts' efforts at world conquest was the destruction of monotheism. They deliberately captured Lot and took him captive so that Abraham would try to rescue him and they could then destroy him.(5) At the root of this war was Nimrod's antipathy towards Abraham, hence the Torah's allusion to the incident of the fiery furnace teaches us that this same intent was behind all of Nimrod's actions.
We have seen how Nimrod saw himself as the source of power and made many futile attempts to fight God and Abraham. He refused to recognize that all the power that he attained was from God himself and that he should humble himself as did the great Jewish leaders. Instead he became arrogant and ultimately failed in his efforts at defeating monotheism.
How does his attitude relate to a believing Jew? We know that there is no longer a yetzer hara (negative inclination) for idol worship as there was in earlier times. However, there is still very strong temptation to attribute our success and happiness to sources other than God. That is a form of idol worship in and of itself, for it views other 'powers' as independent sources of well-being. Included amongst such idols are money, power, honor and powerful people (such as a person's boss).
Yet it seems that the most pernicious form of idol worship is worship of oneself - that means attributing one's success to his own abilities and powers, rather than to God. This attitude is described by the Torah as, "my strength and the might of my hand attained all this wealth".(6) This is a greatly diluted form of what happened to Nimrod - God gave him power and he attributed it to himself. So too when a person succeeds in something there is a great danger that he will become arrogant and forget the source of his success.
It is essential that we strive to emulate Abraham, Moses, Aaron and David, who reacted in the correct way; indeed the more they achieved the humbler they became. This is because every new success gave them a deeper recognition of God's greatness in given them so much. May we learn to emulate our great leaders and realize that only God is the source of goodness.
1. Chullin, 89a. The Gemara continues mentioning other arrogant rulers such as Sancheriv and Nebuchadnezzar.
2. Chagiga, 13a.
3. Midrash HaGadol, Bereishis, 11:26.
4. Eruvin, 53a, Medrash Tanchuma, 6.
5. Zohar,quoted in Artscroll Chumash, Bereishis, 14:12, p. 63.
6. Devarim, 8:17.