Running through a mostly barren part of northern England, for 73 miles, lies one of the greatest Roman ruins in all of Europe: Hadrian's Wall. Built around 122 CE, the wall is the attempt of the Emperor Hadrian to mark, and defend, the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire.

Why Rome fell is the subject of enough books to fill an entire Barnes and Noble. Most theories suggest some form of negative event that was the beginning of the end, whether it be corruption, barbarian tribes, overextension or a litany of other similar reasons.

British historian Mary Beard has a more unusual take on the matter. She contends that the fall of Rome began with Hadrian's wall. Not with the deterioration of Hadrian's wall, but with its construction. It was precisely this symbol of might and power that pulled the rug from under the 2,500 mile wide empire founded by Romulus and Remus. Hadrian brought it all crumbling down, she says.

As an aside, in Jewish history Hadrian has a very negative image - even worse than Titus, who destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Hadrian brutally crushed the Bar Kochba Jewish revolt, massacring many hundreds of thousand in doing so. It was Hadrian who had the over million-strong Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt wiped out in a tremendous pogrom, Hadrian who razed Jerusalem, renamed the Land of Israel to delete its Jewish history and outlawed Judaism. After the Roman siege and destruction of the great city of Beitar in northern Israel, Hadrian refused to let the dead be buried for years. And the list goes on.

Back to Hadrian's grand stone barrier. Ms. Beard says that up until the Wall, Rome had been an internal energy - ever expanding, ever growing, and undefined. Hadrian's Wall changed that fundamentally. Rome now became something defined, marked, caged in, and limited - however massive those limits were. And there's only so long a finite, physical, limited structure can last. By the time Hadrian's bust would be pulled from the river Thames in 1834, there was long nothing left of the empire whose boundaries his wall once defined.

In this week's Torah portion we read the Ten Commandments. They highlight this very point; the importance of defining ourselves not by physical definitions, but by spiritual ones:

Nine of ten are actions-based commandments (honor your parents, don't steal et al.). But commandment numero uno is different. It's the Mitzvah of 'I am the Lord your G‑d' (אנכי ה׳ אלקיך). This first commandment is an idea, a fundamental belief. (Ultimately, every Mitzvah must be a form of action. This Mitzvah is no exception, with the action being meditation on the oneness of G‑d).

The faith and energy that comes from this single 'idea' Mitzvah is what powers all of Judaism. For it doesn't only mean that there is one G‑d. It means that everything comes from G‑d, and everything - at its heart - is G‑dly energy. This knowledge - that the entire world is essentially, at heart, a holy, good entity - is what drives every other Mitzvah. It's the motto of Judaism's millennia long quest to refine and elevate our world through good deeds, Mitzvahs, goodness and kindness. It's an idea that powers all the action.

On a more personal level, it teaches us a profound lesson as well. Knowledge is power. What our minds are filled with has a tremendous, outsized impact on everything we do. Of course careers, hobbies and favorite vacation spots are extremely important. But they're like Hadrian's wall: Defined and limited. As human beings, we need more. In the words of the the second century sage Rabbi Akiva, 'A Jew needs Judaism like a fish needs water'. 

Having a strong, nourished Jewish center at our core powers  everything we do. It can transform us from limited physical creatures to unlimited, boundless, energized, happy people. Unlike Hadrian and his wall, we'd never stop growing, never feel jaded.

If Hadrian had been reminded of this point, we just might've been living in the Civitates Foederatae Americae under the Roman Eagle.

Rabbi Avrohom