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Two Nations Under God? Yaakov, Esav, and the midterm elections

11/13/2018 03:10:23 PM

Nov13

Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman

The story of Yaakov and Esav is a tragic story of conflict. They struggle while they are still in the womb, and this struggle continues throughout their lives. We have the story of the lentil stew when they are young men, followed by Yaakov stealing the blessing from Esav, and then years later they reunite but separate again, never to reunite. It is a story of twin brothers who never appear to have a positive relationship, and it is painful to read.


There is one particular aspect of this conflict that makes it intriguing. Often stories of conflict result in one side emerging victorious, and the other defeated. But that is not the story of Yaakov and Esav. Neither side is defeated. They both succeed in their own ways, becoming their own powerful nations, though they are nations that are always in conflict, with one oppressing, but never defeating, the other. It is this aspect of their story that made it the model for how Jews saw their relationships with other nations throughout history. In our eyes Esav was Rome, and then Christianity - the powerful and violent older brother suppressing his younger and weaker brother, the Jews. (And fascinatingly, Christians also identified with Yaakov and thought of the Jews as Esav, because we came first and were like the older brother wrongfully claiming the status of God’s chosen.)


The identification of Edom with Rome and Christianity means that most of the traditional Jewish commentaries on the story understand Yaakov as being the righteous, chosen son and Esav being the violent rejected son. They see this as a story of destiny, of a predetermined fate.That Yaakov was inherently righteous, and Esav inherently not, and that everything that unfolded happened because that was what needed to happen in order for Yaakov to succeed. 


Today I wanted to consider another approach, famously introduced by Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch. As Rabbi Herzfeld discussed last night, he lived during the Enlightenment and witnessed the ways that Jews were leaving religiosity in favor of new ideals. He argues that the story is not one of destiny, but rather a failure to nurture potential. He posits that Yitzchak and Rivkah erred in raising Esav. They tried to raise Esav the same way they raised Yaakov - sending him to school, trying to keep him on a studious path. In so doing they failed to understand that Esav had different needs and needed to be educated in a way that would cohere with his personality. And, as Rav Hirsch says, if they had done so they would have been able to cultivate him also as a man of God, instead of driving him away.


This is a profound pedagogic statement, but it goes deeper than that. What Rav Hirsch is really teaching us is that the story of Yaakov and Esav isn’t about destiny. It is a story about choice. Esav didn’t have to turn out the way he did, completely misunderstood and separated from his family. If his parents had understood and catered to his individual needs he could have remained part of his family, rather than develop into his own nation. It didn’t have to be the way that it turned out.


Using this lens I want to look at the crux of the story, which lies in just three verses, 21-23, at the beginning of the parsha. First, Rivkah is barren and unable to have children. Yaakov prays to God on her behalf, and she conceives. This is a beautiful moment in the Torah for two reasons. First, in other times when a woman is unable to conceive her husband seems to get frustrated and even angry with her. Here, Yitzchak doesn’t do that, and instead turns to God to pray for her before Rivkah even has to ask him. And second, he doesn’t take a concubine in order to have children with another woman. He just wants Rivkah, which is emphasized by the fact that in the previous parsha Yitzchak is the first person to ever love his wife. It is clear from the text that they operate as one loving unit.


But in the next two verses this all falls apart. Rivkah feels the twins struggling in her womb, and she asks an existential question of “why is this happening to me? Is this really how my future is going to be?” Having children is such an important part of her identity in furthering the Jewish people, but now it seems that there is a negative aura surrounding her pregnancy. So she seeks out God, who responds 


וַיֹּ֨אמֶר ה' לָ֗הּ שְׁנֵ֤י גיים [גוֹיִם֙] בְּבִטְנֵ֔ךְ וּשְׁנֵ֣י לְאֻמִּ֔ים מִמֵּעַ֖יִךְ יִפָּרֵ֑דוּ וּלְאֹם֙ מִלְאֹ֣ם יֶֽאֱמָ֔ץ וְרַ֖ב יַעֲבֹ֥ד צָעִֽיר׃


and the LORD answered her, “Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.”


And this is when her relationship with Yitzchak dissolves. She goes home, doesn’t tell anyone what God told her. The twins are born, and the conflict begins. Yitzchak favors Esav, and Rivkah favors Yaakov. Rivkah and Yitzchak are never on the same page again, and in fact the only time they ever speak is when Rivkah complains to Yitzchak about Esav’s wives, a frustration of hers that Esav clearly hadn’t actually known himself because in response he finds a new wife. Yitzchak and Rikvah’s relationship has become dysfunctional, and it radiates down to their children. 


The Rashbam offers two interpretations for why Rivkah loved Yaakov. The first is that it was because she saw his purity - in other words she saw that he was righteous and thus favored him. This attitude makes this a story of destiny - Yaakov was always the better son, so Rivkah did what she had to do to ensure that he received the blessing. But his second interpretation is that Rivkah favored Yaakov because of what God had told her - in other words, she used her knowledge of how things would develop to decide which child to favor. That is NOT a story of destiny. That is a story of a failure of proper parenting, like Rav Hirsch describes.


With this in mind I want to turn to the commentary of the Netziv. In Haamek Davar he explains the language in God’s prophecy - Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.” He asks why there is a double language - of why both goyim and le’umim are mentioned. As he explains, goyim connotes two separate nations, but ones that are not necessarily that different. They’re two separate peoples but they can coexist and work together. Le’umim however has a much different connotation. It also refers to two peoples, but two peoples who have fundamentally different natures. Two peoples who operate on different wavelengths, and therefore cannot work together. And thus, he notes, they will always be in conflict. Finally, he notes that the language that we translated as “the older shall serve the younger” isn’t actually clear in the text. There aren’t the proper modifiers, so you could understand it as we do traditionally, that the older shall serve the younger, but also that the younger shall serve the older. The Netziv understands this ambiguity not to portray the destiny that one brother will ultimately rule over the other, but rather that they will always be in conflict, with one lording over the other, and then it flipping back and forth throughout history. 


If we consider the Netziv’s comments in light of Rav Hirsch, I think we can read God’s words to Rivkah not necessarily as destiny, as forecasting the way it will inevitably be, that Yaakov and Esav will struggle and ultimately Yaakov will rule over Esav. Rather, we can understand it as a warning, as a presentation of the worst case scenario. God tells Rivkah - you are correct, there is a struggle in your womb. You have two children inside of you, and they will become two separate goyim, two different nations. But if you recognize that and raise them appropriately, like Rav Hirsch says they should have, you can prevent them from becoming two le’umim, always in a state of competition and conflict. They can both remain part of the nuclear Israelite family. Of course we see that Rivkah and Yitzchak do not follow this path, and rather they take sides, which pushes the brothers farther apart and makes it impossible to coexist, with Esav eventually separating from his family to become his own nation that has a painful history with Yaakov’s descendants.


This interpretation resonates strongly with me this week in light of the midterm election. The headlines on Tuesday and Wednesday were not about a winner and a loser. The number of neck-and-neck races and recounts we are undergoing shows that neither side was victorious over the other. Rather, we have two groups struggling with one another over what their vision is for the future of the American people. As historians are warning, this type of divide could lead to a rupture, to the worst case scenario of two separate peoples emerging from one womb. 


But just because this is the current status of our country, it doesn’t mean that it is our fate. I hope and pray that we haven’t reached the point where our differences have made us unable to coexist. We are still in the stage of two forces struggling together in one womb. As Rav Hirsch and the Netziv teach us, this struggle doesn’t mean that our fate is sealed. With the proper leadership and attitudes, we can still find ways to meet each other in spite of our differences, and be able to remain two groups with different approaches to governing our country, but, as Rav Hirsch says, still both united with one ultimate purpose. Shabbat shalom.
 

 

 

Sources

וַיֶּעְתַּ֨ר יִצְחָ֤ק לה' לְנֹ֣כַח אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ כִּ֥י עֲקָרָ֖ה הִ֑וא וַיֵּעָ֤תֶר לוֹ֙ ה' וַתַּ֖הַר רִבְקָ֥ה אִשְׁתּֽוֹ׃
Isaac pleaded with the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD responded to his plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived.


22
וַיִּתְרֹֽצֲצ֤וּ הַבָּנִים֙ בְּקִרְבָּ֔הּ וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ לִדְרֹ֥שׁ אֶת־ה'׃
But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?”She went to inquire of the LORD,


23
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר ה' לָ֗הּ שְׁנֵ֤י גיים [גוֹיִם֙] בְּבִטְנֵ֔ךְ וּשְׁנֵ֣י לְאֻמִּ֔ים מִמֵּעַ֖יִךְ יִפָּרֵ֑דוּ וּלְאֹם֙ מִלְאֹ֣ם יֶֽאֱמָ֔ץ וְרַ֖ב יַעֲבֹ֥ד צָעִֽיר׃
and the LORD answered her, “Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.”


Haamek Davar:
שני גוים. כבר ביארנו בפ׳ נח דגוי הוא אומה המולכת בפ״ע:
בבטנך. שבעודם בבטן כבר נתמנו שרי מעלה לכל ילד בפ״ע וכענין דכתיב בשירת האזינו בהנחל עליון גוים בהפרידו ב״א וגו׳. ויבואר שמה בעז״ה:
ושני לאמים. לאום הוא אומה המתנהגת בטבע המיוחדת לה משארי אומות. ובאשר יש שתי אומות שמולכות כל א׳ בפ״ע ומ״מ מנהגן וטבען שוה. אבל שני לאומים המה נפרדים גם בטבעם:
ממעיך יפרדו. הבדל שביניהם יהא ניכר תיכף ביציאתם מן הבטן:
ולאם מלאם יאמץ. באשר יש שני לאומים שאינם נוגעים זב״ז. לא כן המה תמיד יאמצו זה מזה:
ורב יעבר צעיר. אמר ה׳ לשון דמשתמע בתרי אפי. דאלו אמר בהחלט שהרב יהיה עבד להצעיר. היה אומר ורב יעבוד לצעיר. ואלו אמר בהחלט להיפך היה אומר ורב יעבוד בצעיר. עתה משמעו בשני אופנים. אבל איך שהוא. האחד יעבוד את השני וזה תלוי לפי השעה:


ורב יעבר צעיר. אמר ה׳ לשון דמשתמע בתרי אפי. דאלו אמר בהחלט שהרב יהיה עבד להצעיר. היה אומר ורב יעבוד לצעיר. ואלו אמר בהחלט להיפך היה אומר ורב יעבוד בצעיר. עתה משמעו בשני אופנים. אבל איך שהוא. האחד יעבוד את השני וזה תלוי לפי השעה:

Rashbam:
אוהבת את יעקב - שהייתה מכרת בתומתו וגם ממה שאמר הקב"ה:

Wed, January 23 2019 17 Shevat 5779