This week’s parasha, Toldot, is almost exclusively about rivalry. Some of it concerns the rivalry between Avimelekh, the King of Grar, and Isaac. But mainly, it concerns the rivalry between the twins Esau and Jacob. This rivalry begins in utero: the two siblings fight while still inside Rebecca and even struggle to be born first. While still pregnant, Rebecca is told a prophecy that two nations are gestating inside of her; the nation coming from one will be stronger than the other. The prophecy ends with an ambiguous phrase which can either be read as, “And the older will serve the younger,” or, “And the older the younger will serve,” (Genesis 25:23).
In Rabbinic literature, Esau represents the primary ancestor of Rome, while Jacob, of course, represent the primary ancestor of Israel. Therefore, the early Rabbis view the rivalry of Esau and Jacob as a paradigm for the struggles between Jews and Romans in first and second century, Roman-ruled Judea. One Talmudic teaching (Megillah 6a) understands the prophecy to mean that whenever either Rome or Israel is successful, the other must be in tatters. Hence the destruction of Jerusalem at the height of Roman rule.
This Rabbinic understanding of the rivalry between Esau and Jacob is understandable and matches both their and our reality. Rival powers are rarely able to coexist; one must be made weak for the other to become strong. Neither can live while the other survives.
However, the Rabbis also imagine a different model of this rivalry. This rivalry is exemplified by two Talmudic characters: Rabbi Yehuda the Prince (known simply as Rabbi) and Antoninus. (Some hypothesize that Antoninus was one of the several Caesars who used that name, although it is difficult to confirm this fact.) The Talmud teaches us that when Rebecca is told there are two nations inside of her, we should understand it not as, “nations” (goyim) but as “exalted ones,” (geyim). The exalted ones were Rabbi and Antonius, both of whom were such great personalities, exemplified by their keeping fresh vegetables on their tables for visitors, even during winter. The Rabbis view constant willingness to accept guests as one of the greatest personality traits.
The Talmud teaches us about philosophical debates between Rabbi and Antonius (eg Sanhedrin 91a-b). These are not typical debates where one party always wins or the Rabbi outsmarts the non-Jewish authority. Instead, each is just as likely to convince the other. In some cases, not only does Rabbi accept Antoninus’ arguments, but Rabbi then finds a Biblical verse to support his intellectual rival’s claim. And when Antonius wants to pass on power to his son, he actually consults Rabbi (Avodah Zarah 10a).
In fact, the relationship between Rabbi and Antonius is so unusual, we have to wonder how they were able to turn an historical and cultural rivalry into friendship. How could two people successfully forge a cultural and philosophical divide into a relationship? The answer might lie in two other rival personalities in our parasha, Isaac and Avimelekh. Avimelekh banishes Isaac from the land of Grar, but later comes with his retinue to visit Isaac. Isaac is astounded, asking, “Why did you come to me, you despise me and sent me away from you” (Genesis 26:27). Avimelekh responds that he noticed that God is with Isaac. The two form a pact and Avimelekh leaves Isaac in a state of peace. The midrash (Sifrei Devarim) learns from this that rebuke can actually lead to peace, since Isaac rebukes Avimelekh for his former treatment of Isaac, and it ends with a pact of peace.
Of course, as the same midrash acknowledges, rebuke can also lead to a fraught relationship, which is why Jacob, Joshua, Samuel, and David all wait until their deathbeds to rebuke their children. So how was it successful in the case of Isaac and Avimelekh? Because Avimelekh saw that God was with him. How was God with him? In that Isaac’s behaviour was Godly--he modeled how to act appropriately. Avimelekh saw this and realized that, even though he might have had disagreements with Isaac, Isaac was an upstanding person from whom he needed to learn and with whom he needed to have a relationship.
Which, perhaps, is what turned Rabbi and Antoninus from cultural rivals to friends--friends who disagreed but were willing to learn and be convinced by one another. The two noticed that they were both upstanding people who both behaved similarly in accepting guests at their tables, both serving dignified food year round. Perhaps they heard about one another and, despite their differences, despite their historical hatred, were willing to take the risk to create a relationship. And, likely, that relationship contained some tense moments of rebuke and disagreement. But because of their mutual respect for one another’s behavior, because they saw God as being with the other, they kept an open mind when disagreeing, sometimes becoming convinced, but always remaining friends.
The other day I asked my teacher, Art Green, how we can have conversations with those whom we disagree. He told me the first step is modelling proper behavior. When a rival sees someone with whom they disagree is also a person of upstanding character, they often cannot help but open their hearts and minds. Like Avimelekh, they may even take the first step in creating a relationship.
May we all learn how to be like Isaac and Avimelekh, like Rabbi and Antoninus. Let us model how to behave in the world and then, perhaps, we can befriend those with whom we disagree. May we meet one another in disagreement but leave with a pact of peace. A pact of peace which, my friend Sasha Batz Stern points out, is not a pact based on agreeing on issues, but a pact based on a shared commitment to behaving properly in the world.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום