Not a Bald Eagle, I Guess...By Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Nebuchadnezzar’s letter continues:
“I had a dream,” he wrote, “which frightened me out of my peaceful state. I summoned all my sorcerers and astrologers, but none of them could interpret my dream until Daniel arrived. Daniel (whom I renamed Belteshazzar, after the god called Bel) is filled with the spirit of the Living G-d and I told him the dream.”
“I saw a huge tree, reaching as high as the sky and visible from anywhere on Earth. It had beautiful branches and plentiful fruit. Animals rested in its shade and birds nested in it. Everyone was able to eat from it. Then, an angel came down from Heaven and ordered the tree felled, its branches chopped off and its fruit scattered. The animals and birds would be sent away. The root of the tree, however, would be left in the ground, like a person chained up in a field, where the dew will wash over him and he will share the grass of the ground with the animals. Such a person will live like a wild beast, not a human being, for seven periods of time. This is being done, the angel said, so that people will see that G-d runs the show and He gives the kingdom to whomever He wants, even raising the lowly to rule.” (The period of time in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream is undefined, but most commentators derive from later events that it must have been years.)
Daniel paused and Nebuchadnezzar exclaimed, “Belteshazzar! Don’t tell me this dream has even you stumped!”
“It’s not that,” Daniel replied, “I just don’t know how to tell you this. The tree that you saw is you. You have grown very powerful and your influence reaches the ends of the Earth. G-d has decided to drive you away from humanity for a time, to live among wild animals. You’ll eat grass like cattle and wash in dew. This will last for seven cycles (whose duration is unrevealed at this point) until you understand that G-d is in control and that you serve at His pleasure. As far as the roots being left alone, that means that your kingdom will be waiting for you until you return to reclaim it.”
Daniel advised Nebuchadnezzar to give charity and to perform acts of kindness in order to defer his fate, which the king was able to do for one full year. (The Talmud in Baba Basra 4a criticizes Daniel for advising the tyrant on how to forestall punishment.) Twelve months later, the king was walking on his palace rooftop, when the glory of the city caused him to take personal pride in his own power and honor, as if it were his doing that Babylon was so mighty. That was exactly the thing he had been warned against and a Heavenly voice decreed that Nebuchadnezzar would be driven from his throne, to dwell among the animals of the field, as had been foretold in his dream. And that’s exactly what happened; Nebuchadnezzar lived in the wild until his hair “grew like an eagle’s” and his nails were like the talons of birds.
After seven years, Nebuchadnezzar’s senses returned. He blessed and thanked G-d, Whose reign he acknowledged as eternal. Nebuchadnezzar recognized that human beings, no matter how relatively powerful, are insignificant before G-d, Whose will is done despite the plans of man. When his senses returned, Nebuchadnezzar reclaimed the throne and had even greater glory than he had had before. And so, he praises G-d, Whose deeds are true, Whose way is just and Who humbles those that are too full of themselves (as Nebuchadnezzar had been).
This is as good a place as any to comment on the fact that much of the Book of Daniel is written in Aramaic, the language of Babylonia. Elsewhere in the Bible, conversations in foreign languages are generally translated. For example, Pharaoh and Moses no doubt conversed in Egyptian, while Balak and Balaam presumably conversed in the language of Moab. Aramaic, however, is considered in some ways to be a variant form of Hebrew and is not translated when it appears in Tanach. (According to the Kuzari 2:68, Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic are all cognate languages and Aramaic was Abraham’s native language in Ur Kasdim.) Bible fun fact: Aramaic even appears in the Torah itself. In Genesis 31:47, Jacob calls a monument Gal Eid – “heap of testimony” – while Laban calls it by its Aramaic equivalent, Y’gar Sahadusa. So the use of Aramaic throughout the Book of Daniel is not quite so surprising as some might think. (You’ll also find Aramaic in the Book of Ezra, as well as in a single verse in Jeremiah – specifically chapter 10, verse 11, which is a message meant for the Chaldeans, who spoke Aramaic.)