This week’s Torah portion begins with a puzzle. After much prayer, Rebecca is finally pregnant with the twins who will become Jacob and Esau, and the two boys seem to be struggling with each other even before they are born. Perplexed and exhausted, Rebecca asks God why her unborn children are fighting. God explains, “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” (Genesis 25:23).
The explanation seems clear. The two babies in Rebecca’s womb represent two different nations, and because they are so different, they are destined to fight with each other. Rebecca’s son Jacob will represent the nation of Israel, and her son Esau will represent the nation of Edom, constantly challenging Israel. The ancient rabbis go further, equating Edom with Greece, Rome and every other enemy of Israel. The message here seems to be that Israel and the other nations of the world are different from each other — and that difference inevitably leads to conflict.
But there is another contrasting understanding of this passage. It stems from the fact that in speaking of “two nations,” the word “nations” is written strangely. Although the word is traditionally pronounced goyim, meaning “nations,” it is written geyim, which could mean “proud ones.” Who are these proud ones?
The ancient rabbis point to two descendants of Jacob and Esau, Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi, the leader of the Jewish people in Roman times, and Antoninus, a Roman emperor. According to the Talmud, although their people were in conflict, Rabbi Yehudah and Antoninus had a deep and abiding friendship.
The Talmud relates that Yehudah’s parents had him circumcised on his eighth day of life, even though Roman law prohibited the practice. Yehudah’s mother was summoned to Rome with her baby to submit to the law in front of the emperor, and the penalty was death. On the way, they stopped at an inn. When the innkeeper’s wife heard their story, she thought of a solution. Yehudah’s mother could take the innkeeper’s baby boy, Antoninus, to Rome instead — he was the same age as Yehudah but uncircumcised. Yehudah’s mother did so, and their lives were saved. The two mothers also pledged that their boys would always be friends.
As the boys grew up, they maintained their friendship despite the differences between them and despite the conflict between their communities. The Talmud records many times when they discuss important issues and learn from each other, and each of them has the opportunity to realize that he was wrong and his friend was right about something they had talked about together.
This explanation seems equally clear. Despite great differences between people, connection, friendship, learning, understanding and peace are possible. The message here is that conflict between those who are different is not inevitable.
Although these two explanations seem to contradict one another, we can learn from both of them. If we let our differences define us, then yes, conflict is inevitable, as it is between Jacob and Esau. But if we turn toward each other, if we seek connection in our common humanity, then we — like Rabbi Yehudah and Antoninus — can find another way, a path toward peace.
Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as the rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: [email protected] .