Rome isn’t beautiful as much as it exhibits power.

Thursday, 22 February, 2024 - 4:22 pm

Rome isn’t beautiful as much as it exhibits power.

I have been in Paris as well as in Rome, Prague, Budapest and Vienna. They are more beautiful than Rome, but Rome’s might is evident in every spot in it. 

Without knowing anything about the city and its story, you can see that this is an old-world capital. During my recent visit there, my eight-year-old Chani asked me all the time: “But why did they build everything so big?” Here is a girl who has grown up in little Basel, which is like a village compared with a city like Rome. She sees the wide open spaces, the broad streets and the large buildings that send out the message of tremendous power; she sees the monuments that every general or Caesar left there so that everyone would see how great they were. Chani noticed the size and the exhibition of power immediately and was trying to understand the rationale behind it. 

Chazal called this “hamona shel Romi” in several places, which I would translate as “Rome’s might”. When I was sitting at the foot of the enormous Colosseum, I realized that now, for the first time, I could understand what the Gemara in masechet Makkot meant when it said hamona shel Romi. There is a well-known story about Rabbi Akiva, Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya and Rabbi Yehoshua reaching a point that was one hundred and twenty mil away from Rome (about 120 kilometers) and hearing the sound of hamona shel Romi. Three of them cried, but Rabbi Akiva laughed. 

For the first time, I understood how it is possible to hear hamona shel Romi from such a distance. I understood that it wasn’t that they physically heard the roar of the city, but rather they could imagine Rome’s power, its greatness. They heard and saw everywhere they went the overpowering din of the Roman Empire, which took the world by storm and created a new order. Spiritual figures such as Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues could barely hear themselves and their teachings due to that din of Rome that ruled everywhere.

These people, who differentiated between the temporary and eternal lives, holy tanna’im who learned and taught Torah and mitzvahs, exalted the life of the soul over that of the material, physical life – were surrounded by the notion that what is considered most meaningful is who is going to win by force, who hits harder. He who has a place in the Colosseum’s arena is the world’s VIP; he whose body is stronger is cheered, while his fellow, who sits in the corner and learns Talmud, doesn’t deserve to live. He who has the big money, the biggest palace, the carriage with the fine horses, is the successful one, while the person who knows how to listen to the troubles of other people, who gives to others, who chooses to forego honor, is considered a nobody.

Of course they cried – if not about this, then about what?

But I too was in a shul in Rome, for mincha and Shacharit. Rabbi Akiva’s descendants were sitting there wearing the same tefillin that Rabbi Akiva wore when he taught, wrapped in the same tallit that he taught about, and said “Shema Yisrael,” and Rabbi Akiva, who had looked ahead, and had actually predicted this back then, laughed. Of course he laughed!

The Colosseum and the Pantheon, as well as the Arch of Titus have no present and no future. They are museums. While the house of Hashem, the beautiful, magnificent shul, is still active. It is still populated by praying Jews enlivened by their spirit.

Our might was never physical, military nor political. Our power lay and still lies in our faith, which is expressed in many small everyday acts, Torah and mitzvahs. Today’s Rome speaks without words of what is passing and what is eternal; what is gone and what continues to exist forever. 

Am Yisrael Chai.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

In the picture: A Roman dressed up as a Roman – but he is really a Yaakov

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