Parshat Toldot : Friends? Enemies? Both?

Rivkah is pregnant with twins. But, these aren’t just any twins, these two are ferocious. While still in her womb, they move around so much that Rivkah is in pain, and can’t ever sleep. What are they doing in there? Are they fighting? Are they playing? Rivkah gives birth to two astounding boys. They look and act as different as possible, and most outsiders can’t believe that they’re related. Despite that, they really are twins, and Rivkah knows it. These two share entirely too much to be strangers. So, it seems they will have two choices in life – either they will learn to love each other as brothers, or they will be destined to fight one another as only brothers can.

This week’s parsha tells of Yaakov, our particular ancestor’s birth, and the options are laid out clearly. As the Ramban will tell us in a couple of weeks, the story of Yaakov in the Chumash is not only his personal story, but we, the children of Yaakov, are destined to live out in every generation, the same challenges, and the same struggles that Yaakov faced. Over the generations, Esav, the red, hairy brother, with whome we have everything and nothing in common becomes identified with Rome and Western society, and the Rabbis looked to these parshiyot to give guidance and to justify their positions.

Remarkably, the first verse where these brothers are introduced, when Rivka is told of the remarkable twins she carries, is used in the Talmud to explain entirely opposing ideas.

And God said to her, “Two people are in your womb and two nations will emerge from your loins. One nation shall be stronger than the other, and the elder will serve the younger.” (Breishit 25:23)

The Talmud in Megilla (6a) looks to the pessimistic end of the verse, and presents this zero-sum model of conflict:

Caeserea and Jerusalem: If someone tells you, “They are both destroyed,” don’t believe him. “Both are settled” – don’t believe. “Caeserea is destroyed and Jerusalem is settled, or Jerusalem is settled and Caeserea is destroyed” – believe. . . ‘One nation shall be stronger than the other.’

On the other hand, the Talmud in Berachot (57b) says that the earlier part of the verse, referring to two peoples, recalls the relationship that Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi, the great Jewish leader of the second century and compiler of the Mishna, had with Antoninus, a powerful Roman noble. The midrash is full of stories of how these two men, from such seemingly different worlds, managed to share a lifelong friendship and bond.

True to form, our tradition points to two opposite ways of living, and commands us to make our path negotiating the divide. Both of these attitudes emerge from the Torah and they must be considered. Assuming that Esav and Yaakov are identical is to give up one half of our tradition, and to accept that we must always be opposed is equally dishonest. While it is not an answer, these traditions do illuminate one repeated experience; that those with whom we seem the most conflicted, are often the same people with whom share the most in common.

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