Yaakov/Esav: Who Has the Upper Hand?

Rising anti-Semitism is rarely the lone or the last expression of intolerance in a society. - Samantha Power

Our tradition, our experience, our well-earned fears teach us that in every generation there arises a threat not only to our well-being but to our very being. An equally sobering and too often overlooked realization is that, to the extent we are threatened, so are others.

It might be that, as we have heard, “history is an arc that bends towards justice” but in truth that long arc is defined as much by setbacks as by progress. We know that because our experience has too often borne the painful weight of those setbacks.

At our Seder, even as we rejoice over our freedom and redemption, we remember and declare that, she’bechol dor va’dor omdim aleinu le’chaloteinu – in every generation they “rise against us to annihilate us”. We understand in our souls and our bones that our existence and survival is never certain.

The post-World War world, with American leadership, the State of Israel, a westernized Europe has sometimes given us the illusion that we Jews have finally reached a safe place on that long arc of history, but more and more we experience painful jolts that once again prove the sad wisdom of our tradition is the truer understanding of history’s arc.

In parashat Toldot, Yitzhak prays to God that his line may continue as we encounter another of our imahot struggling to conceive. In his prayers, we are made once again to confront the harsh truth that Jewish continuity cannot be taken for granted. The difficulty the imahot experience in conceiving speaks not so much to barrenness as to the truth that each generation is a miracle.

Rivkah’s pregnancy is powerfully difficult. We are told, “The children agitated within her, and she said, ‘If so, why am I thus?’…” To emphasize the struggle that is to be, Chazal explain that the “agitation” Rivkah felt and sensed in va’yitrotzezu related to Yaakov’s wanting to be born when she passed by the yeshiva of Shem and Ever, and Esav’s desire to emerge when she passed by the temple of idolatry. In short, the agitation within her womb was the eternal struggle that would express itself between the world of Yaakov vs. the world of Esav.

Her two as-yet-unborn infants represent two nations, two conflicting ideologies – Israel and Edom. As the Mizrachi puts it, “The turmoil within her was due to the irreconcilable conflict between the two nations that was already taking shape.”

As it was in Rivka’s womb, so has it been in the world. Until Moshiach’s arrival, this is a fact of our existence. Yes, we have sometimes felt optimistic to allow ourselves to believe otherwise, but God’s lesson remains clear, “Two nations are in your womb; two regimes from your insides shall be separated; the might shall pass from one regime to the other, and the elder shall serve the younger.” 

Two regimes. One dedicated to justice, morality, decency and ethics. The other to barbarity, viciousness, bloodshed. They cannot ever be in harmony.  One must always have their upper hand, either on the battlefield or in the hearts and minds of men. There is no surety as to which will be strong. Only one thing can be, Chazal teach, “They will not be equally great. When one rises the other falls.”

“Two nations are in your womb” – shnei goyim b’bitneich.

"Goyim" - nations - is generally spelled gimel, vav, yud, mem. Yet here it is written, gimel, yud, yud, mem. Pronounced “goyim” it actually reads,geyim” – proud ones. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 11a) tells us this alludes to two great leaders who would descend from Yaakov and Esav – Antonius, the Roman emperor, and Rebbi, the codifier of the Mishnah. According to the Talmud, both were “proud” in the sense that they were both extremely wealthy, so wealthy that they “… were always able to serve their guests radishes, lettuce and cucumbers, at any time of the year, in season or not in season, even if they needed to be imported from far away markets…”

We begin with existential threats and end with… vegetables?! What is going on here?

My grandfather, HaRav Bezalel Zev Shafran’s profound work (Sh’elot U’tshuvot R’baz - Yalkut HaChanochi 6) provides insight to the significance of the Rebbi and Antoninus relationship and its lesson for history and the eternal conflict between the descendants of Yaakov and Esav.

In the opening story on the Daf, Antoninus turns to Rebbi for advice on how to establish his son as successor, something most unusual as it was the Senate that chose the leader and that body generally refused to have a son follow his father as emperor. Elaborating on the very close relationship between the two geyim, the Talmud also describes how Antoninus had a secret tunnel erected between their houses so that he could always visit with Rebbi. In other words, communication between them was always open, honest and, most importantly, discreet. (Antoninus eager to have his son succeed him, was rightly worried about leaks.) 

When Antoninus sought Rebbi’s advice, Rebbi knew he must watch his words and tongue. So, he devised ways and means to express his advice other than in “mashal v’chida” or just b’remiza.” As a result, my grandfather makes clear that he spoke only through allegory, never by direct answer. Even to speak in whispers was unacceptable because one could never know, the Talmud writes, “…if a bird will bring the message through the heavens.” (Foreshadowing wiretaps!)

So, when Antoninus complained to Rebbi that the powers at Rome were badgering him, his response was to take him to his garden and pluck one radish, and then another and another. The message? To pluck them one at a time, not all at once.

As he communicated with radishes, so too he communicated with lettuce. The Talmud tells of Gira, Antoninus’ daughter, who sinned with another man. Once again, Antoninus sought Rebbi’s advice as to how to handle the situation but did not want anyone to know of it. The Rebbi did not as much as utter the words that she sinned. Instead, he sent gargira, a leafy green whose name was like hers. Rebbi sent Antoninus chasa – a kind of lettuce, whose meaning is to have mercy. Chasa, that is, mercy.

No leaks. No betrayal. Only a discreet, responsible, trusting communication.

My grandfather cites other examples from the Talmudic portrayal of this trusting relationship, including when Rebbi replaced large overgrown radishes with small radishes on his roof’s garden, conveying the message that the older, tired out ministers should be replaced with new, younger ones.

My grandfather’s teaching was that the discretion and trust these two giants shared benefitted each. Rebbi’s messages and responses were always filled with wisdom and sharpness (radishes!) that no one could ever “wiretap” or eavesdrop.

Rebbi spoke in “vegetable.” Antoninus understood in “real life.”

My grandfather makes clear that the Talmud was not concerned with vegetables at all! He concludes that these two geyim who were always able to serve their guests radishes, lettuce and cucumbers were never at a loss for trust, never at a loss for discretion. “…these two greats, communicated with each other b’remiza, discreetly, and never did they lack radishes or lettuce, because theirs was a language of allegory and riddle; in these riddles they were able to hide their most innermost thoughts, so others would never understand.”  

In each generation…

The threat is with us always. Our ability to overcome Esav and his tactics, whether diplomatically or on field of battle is not about vegetables. Overcoming the threat in each generation depends on communication, discretion, and trust.

At our moment in history, the battle between Yaakov and Esav continues unabated. We desperately need a Rebbi and Antoninus to communicate, to use discretion, to establish trust and find a balance of respect between the two houses. Could any of us name two leaders, two geyyim, like them?

There are those who imagine such communication exists today between Washington and Jerusalem. I pray it is so, but I find myself at a loss to identify a real Rebbi or Antoninus.

Discretion? Subtlety? In our current political and cultural environment? That is laughable. And, frighteningly, as a result, Esav makes his claim to the upper hand.

Rabbi Safran’s “Something Old, Something New – Pearls from the Torah” available on Amazon