Soaring oil prices, reaching new highs with no end in sight – will
it hit $200 a barrel, or $300? – dominate headlines.
No one is immune to the effects of the rising costs of energy.
America alone consumes over 22 million barrels of oil a
day, 25% of the world’s total.
Some are bemoaning the West’s addiction to oil. Others
see in this escalating crisis the incentive and opportunity
to discover new sources of energy. Where are we headed?
There are many angles to this story. But perhaps the most
important angle of all is overlooked: The soaring prices
of oil bring to the fore the defining conflict of our times
– the confrontation between Islam and the West. Every
price hike further strangles the West's energy addiction
as they pay for their fix, which directly enriches and empowers
the Arab world. [Just for contrast: in 1946 the cost of
a barrel of crude oil was $1.17. In 1972 it was $3.00 a
barrel. Today it is hovering at about $120 per barrel].
With oil at the heart of this power struggle, I decided
to research when this shift of power began. Would you believe
it? This week is exactly one century since oil was first
discovered in the Middle East: On May 26, 1908 British geologists
discovered oil at Masjid-i-Suleiman in southwest Persia.
What is significant about this centennial? You may recall
that a few weeks ago this column (The
Calling of Our Generation) addressed a prescient Chassidic
discourse delivered in 1908 – at the dawn of the 20th
century – about the challenges that would unfold in the
coming years, namely the confrontations between the two
empires: Edom and Ishmael, the Western world (descendants
of Rome, Edom) and the Islamic Ottoman Empire (descendants
Is it a coincidence that oil was discovered in the Arab
world in the same year (1908) when the Ottoman Empire began
to dissolve, and the Rebbe Rashab defined the battles to
come between the Arab/Muslims and the West?!
Ostensibly, superficially, this concurrence of events and
distribution of power may seem inconsequential. But from
a global, historical perspective a crucial trend is apparent.
The confrontation between the West and the Arab/Muslim
world goes back to the time of Abraham almost four millennia
ago: The battles between Ishmael, Isaac, Esau and Jacob
– ancestors of todays Arabs/Muslims, Westerners and
Jews respectively (see Abraham’s
Vision: The Root of Today’s Conflicts).
These battles define a recurrent thread that runs through
history. Especially over the last two thousand years the
children of Ishmael and Esau have been at each others throats,
with the children of Jacob and Israel always in the middle.
Dominance and supremacy has shifted from power to another.
First the Roman Empire was in control, followed by the Byzantines.
Then the Muslim Ottoman Empire came to power. For centuries
the balance of power would fluctuate from one to the other.
Then, in 1908, with the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the
Western Empires returned to power.
At the time, it seemed that the West (Esau) had prevailed,
particularly following the Allies victories in the two World
Wars. But as the 20th century wore on, lo and
behold: Who reappears? The children of Ishmael! As petroleum
grew into the primary energy that would fuel the engine
of the Western world – oil being the lifeblood of
the world’s economy – power would shift to the
Ishmaelite Kingdoms, up to the point today that they have
the ability to blackmail and strangle the world, with no
end in sight.
Yet another monkey wrench thrown into the 20th Century
quagmire. As Ishmael’s power began to wane (with the
fall of the Ottoman Empire), the seeds of their resurgence
were buried deep beneath their lands, in the shape of oil
and fossil fuels, that would provide them with enormous
wealth and the power to hold Esau (the West) hostage.
Who could have written a more surprising script: Without
oil the Arab countries would be no more significant than
another third world country. At the turn of the 20th
Century the Arab countries seemed all but powerless. One
century ago, the discovery of oil has empowered then with
the energy that fuels the entire earth!
Indeed, the classical mystical text of the Zohar (II 32b)
describes the power that Ishmael’s progeny will wield
at the end of days.
Why did G-d give them this power – the keys to the
energy of the West? For two reasons: 1) As a son of Abraham,
G-d blesses Ishmael – “As for Ishmael, I have
heard you: behold, I will bless him and make him fruitful,
increasing his numbers very greatly, and I will make him
a great nation,” fulfilling Abraham’s request
“O that Ishmael might live before You” (Genesis
2) Ishmael’s power balances out the extreme aggressions
of Esau over the generations. As the Zohar elaborates, “the
sons of Ishmael will fight mighty battles in the world,
and the sons of Edom will gather against them, and make
war against them, some on land, others on sea, and some
close to Jerusalem, and one shall prevail over the other.”
The battles between Esau and Ishmael, spiritually and psychologically
speaking, reflect the tension between integrating our material
world with its Divine purpose. From, the times of Abraham
till the present this has been the defining challenge, and
each of his children have gone their way to try and find
the path of balance.
3320 years ago at Sinai the children of Esau and Ishmael
rejected the Divine mandate that provides a blueprint how
to transform the physical universe into a Divine home. As
the year passed, these nations slowly began accepting the
Sinai principles of civilization. Yet, as long as spirit
and matter remain at odds hostilities persist between the
children of Abraham.
These battles will continue until the nations of the world
come to realize that they must make their peace with the
Divine, and reunite as children of Abraham under one G-d
– fulfilling the prophecy “then I will turn
to the peoples a pure language that they may all call upon
the name of G-d to serve him with one consent” (Chaggai
3:9), and on that day “G-d will be one and His name
one” (Zecharia 14:9), as the Zohar concludes: “Blessed
be the Lord for ever and ever. Amen and amen.”
When we study the events of the past century, in historical
context of the ongoing battles between Ishmael and Edom,
and we see the power of oil rising to being the prominent
commodity of our times – pitting the Middle East against
the West – is there a more plausible explanation to
understand these circumstances than the spiritual/historical
Peace in Abraham's home, harmony between his children,
drives the forces of history. As long as Ishmael, Esau and
Jacob have not made their peace the story continues. Now
the story is coming to its conclusion; the stage is set:
Ishmael has the power to confront Esau and Jacob with their
wealth of oil. The presenting question is: Will the nations
behave as is befitting the children of Abraham?
And what is the solution? Resolution will come only when
the nations of the world recognize and accept the Sinai
message that they rejected 3320 years ago (see Esau,
Ishmael and Sinai).
Interestingly, oil itself is the best metaphor for transforming
the material universe into spiritual fuel; how to dig and
excavate the earth and uncover its powerful potential; how
each of is charged with the mission of revealing the Divine
energy that lies within every fiber of existence, ultimately
converting matter into light and warming our cold universe.
Something to think about next time you fill up your car
with gas – paying per gallon $4 and counting…