"Two Nations are Within You"

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion




Dedicated in memory of my sister, Szore Rivka Kitay, of Lakewood, New Jersey, 
whose fifth yahrzeit will fall on the 6th day of Kislev this year - from those who remember her.



"Two Nations are Within You"

By Rav Michael Hattin




These are the descendants of Yitzchak son of Avraham, Avraham begat Yitzchak.  Yitzchak was forty years old when he took as his wife Rivka the daughter of Betuel the Aramean, sister of Lavan the Aramean from Padan Aram.  Yitzchak implored God on behalf of his wife for she was barren, and God heard his entreaties and Rivka his wife became pregnant. 


The children strove within her and she said: "if it be so, then why am I?" so she went to enquire of God.  God said to her: "two nations are within you and two peoples shall part from your womb.  One nation will overpower the other and the great the small shall serve." 


Her days of pregnancy were complete and behold, there were twins in her belly.  The first one came out all red, completely covered with hair like a mantle, and they called his name Esav.  Afterwards, his brother emerged, and behold, his hand was grasping the heel of his brother, and he called his name Yaakov.  Yitzchak was sixty years old when they were born.


The lads grew up.  Esav was a man who knew to hunt, a man of the fields, while Yaakov was a simple man who dwelt in tents.  Yitzchak loved Esav for he provided game, but Rivka loved Yaakov. 


Yaakov prepared a stew, as Esav was returning from the field very weary.  Esav said to Yaakov: "pour me now from that red, red stuff for I am weary," therefore his name was called 'Edom'.  Yaakov said: "sell me your birthright this day."  Esav responded: "behold, I am going to die, so why then do I need the birthright?"  Yaakov said: "swear to me this day," and he swore to him, so he sold his birthright to Yaakov.  Yaakov gave Esav bread and stew of lentils, he ate, drank, arose and went, and Esav despised the birthright (Bereishit 25:19-34).


Thus begins Parashat Toledot with most dramatic developments.  While the marriage of Yitzchak and Rivka was reported in last week's Parasha as the crowning realization of aged Avraham's dying wishes, loyal servant Eliezer's wearying efforts, and Almighty God's cosmic design, this week's reading introduces serious complications to that seemingly straightforward event.  Rivka, like her mother-in-law Sarah before her, is barren and Yitzchak poignantly prays on her behalf, but there the similarities end. 




            The motif of the barren woman who deeply desires offspring and whose prayers are ultimately answered by compassionate God is not altogether uncommon in Tanakh and certainly not uncommon in Sefer Bereishit.  Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, the wife of Manoach (mother of Shimshon – Sefer Shoftim Chapter 13), Chana (mother of Shemuel the prophet – Sefer Shemuel Chapter 1) and a number of others are all painfully infertile and then thankfully conceive and bear a son.  In almost all of the cases, the resultant offspring is charged by God with a fateful role of responsibility that may be regarded as the direct consequence of that initial condition.  That is to say that while all births are miraculous and special, the birth of a child to a barren woman who has fervently prayed to God is especially significant and must therefore presage some unique destiny.  But the outcome in our Parasha is altogether disconcerting for while God answers Yitzchak and Rivka's entreaties, His response is much more than they had anticipated: "The children strove within her and she said: 'if it be so, then why am I?', so she went to enquire of God.  God said to her: 'two nations are within you and two peoples shall part from your womb.  One nation will overpower the other and the great the small shall serve.'" 


            As Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra explains, Rivka's initial puzzlement was occasioned by the strange circumstances of her pregnancy.  So painful was her state and so unsettled was her belly that she sought the advice of other women, but none had experienced anything that she described.  Thus she enquired of God – surely a reference to her consultation with an otherwise-unknown prophetic figure – only to be informed that in fact her state was categorically different.  The mighty striving that she felt within her was not solely the physiology of a typical twin birth unfolding, but was rather to be regarded as a herald of great future struggle, of hostility and confrontation between the two disparate nations that would issue forth from her womb. 




            In order to appreciate the uniqueness of Rivka's situation, it is instructive to arrange God's oracular pronouncement to her in accordance with its natural meter and rhythm:


Two nations are within you,                               two peoples shall part from your womb.  One nation will overpower the other,               and the great the small shall serve.


In this form, it becomes apparent that not only will two different competing peoples descend from Rivka and Yitzchak but that there shall be some sort of inherent asymmetry between them, an inverse balance that will in fact constitute the source of their mutual enmity and conflict.  That is to say that because the two nations will be so evenly matched in temporal power but yet so hopelessly incongruent, it will not be possible for them to co-exist comfortably.  And thus, "one nation will overpower the other…"  The stage is therefore early set for two peoples, each one with a unique role and destiny and a Divinely-enjoined mission to mankind, to simultaneously enter the arena of human history and to then fight each other for supremacy. 




            But which one of them will prevail?  While the first phrase of "one nation will overpower the other" is inconclusive, the concluding expression is seemingly more clear, for it indicates that "the great the small shall serve."  Would it not be reasonable to conclude from the phrase that the firstborn and elder child will be subservient to the younger?  Rabbi David Kimchi (13th century, Provence) perceptively remarks, however, that the phrase lacks the Hebrew particle "et" that serves as the object marker, thus rendering the outcome quite undefined.  Thus, while God makes it clear that only one of the peoples will ultimately enjoy ascendancy, there is an inherent ambiguity in the text concerning that people's identity: 


Although the Torah states that "the great the small shall serve" ("verav ya'avod tza'ir") it does not make use of the particle 'et' that is used to mark the direct object.  Thus, the matter is left doubtful as to who will serve whom.  Will the great serve the small or will the small serve the great? (commentary to Bereishit 25:23)


In other words, explains the Radak, had the original text stated "verav ya'avod ET tza'ir" the identity of the subject and object would have been obvious.  "Et" introduces the object, thus making "rav" the subject and yielding "the great (subject) shall serve (verb) the small (object)."  However, in the absence of "et" one may just as easily render "the great (object) shall be served (verb) by the small (subject)"!


            Radak goes on to explain that in Biblical usage, it is typically the subject that is mentioned first in such a statement (compare Iyov 14:19 – "stones are ground down by water," and Yeshayahu 64:1 – "water is boiled by fire").  Here, however, the deliberate imprecision comes to emphasize the oscillating nature of the relationship between the two nations.  Often, the great shall serve the small, but sometimes the small will (be forced to?) serve the great.  The thrust of both Rivka's painful pregnancy as well as the Divine portent subsequently vouchsafed to her is to announce the emergence of two nations that will be in perpetual discord and disagreement.


            Of course, the great contrast between the two twins soon became apparent, for while Esav the firstborn was a "man of the field" who spent his days hunting and killing game, Yaakov his brother was a contemplative tent-dweller and herder of sheep.  The former was ruddy and covered with hair, his appearance matching his vigorous but bloodthirsty nature.  The latter was smooth-skinned and fair, possessing none of his brother's stealthy but deadly traits.  With the birthright, the blessings and the hearts and minds of humanity hanging in the balance, could there be anything but rivalry and warfare between these two brothers?




            Remarkably, while the above analysis portrays matters in stark terms and seems to allow no room for accommodation, the early Rabbis detected in the passage the possibility of a more optimistic reading:


God said to her: "two nations are within you and two peoples shall part from your womb"- Said Rav Yehuda in the name of Rav: read not "nations" ("goyim") but rather "glorified ones" ("gayim").  This refers to Rabbi and Antoninus whose tables never lacked lettuce, cucumbers or radishes, neither in the summertime nor in the wintertime.  For the master has taught that radish and lettuce assist in the digestion of food while cucumbers improve intestinal function (Talmud Bavli Avodah Zara 11a).


The "Rabbi" referred to in the above passage is none other than Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nassi ("the Prince"), who was active in the late 2nd century CE and was responsible for the compilation of the Mishna.  At that time, the Jews in the land of Israel, concentrated in the region of the Galil, were under Roman domination but managed to preserve both a measure of autonomy as well as their self-respect due to the leadership of their illustrious Rabbi Yehuda, who was a direct descendent and spiritual heir of the great Second Temple scholar Hillel the Elder.  Of course, the unusually good relations that Rabbi Yehuda enjoyed with the Roman government and particularly with a powerful individual by the name of "Antoninus" were critical for the welfare of the Jews at the time.


            The historical identity of this Antoninus is somewhat more obscure.  Many identify him with the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius who ruled from 138 CE until 161 CE.  Antoninus Pius succeeded the harsh Hadrian, who had brutally suppressed the Bar Kochva revolt (132 -135 CE) and in its aftermath authored severe decrees outlawing religious practices.  These were subsequently repealed by Antoninus and this may therefore explain the positive judgment accorded to him in Rabbinic literature of the period in general and in the above passage in particular.  There are, in fact, a number of intriguing sources that describe conversations concerning philosophy and faith that transpired between Antoninus and Rabbi Yehuda, and the reader is directed to Talmud Bavli Tractate Sanhedrin 91a-b, Midrash Bereishit Rabba 34:10 and Midrash Vayikra Rabba 3:2.  In all of the sources noted and others besides, the two converse concerning a variety of subjects with a spirit of tolerance, mutual respect and even admiration.


            In any case, what is significant for us is to note that according to the above source that focuses upon the extreme wealth and prestige of these two – the foods in question not being commonly available out of season and also associated with aiding the digestion of large and varied menus – a reconciliation was actually possible between Yaakov and Esav.  In years past, we have investigated the cohesive link that the early Rabbis established between Esav and the Roman empire, understanding that the pagan, rapacious and bloodthirsty ways of the latter were in perfect consonance with the Torah's portrayal of the former but utterly irreconcilable with the gentle and life-affirming tenets of Yaakov.  But here, the Rabbis read the same verses and saw the possibility of a more positive relationship, one of collegiality, deep seated trust and even reverence!




            Perhaps, then, we must modify our typical reading considerably.  Concerning the election of Yitzchak and the rejection of Yishmael described earlier in Bereishit 21:12-13, God made it abundantly clear that while Yishmael will be blessed through Avraham's merit, nevertheless His covenant will be realized only through Sarah's offspring Yitzchak.  The legacy of Avraham and Sarah will be transmitted exclusively through the line of Yitzchak and he will serve as the progenitor of the chosen nation.  Similarly, concerning the two wildly divergent sons of Yitzchak and Rivka, the narrative quickly singles out Yaakov as its focus and designates his descendents as the bearers of the Divine teachings.  But Esav is not rejected outright as Yishmael most assuredly was.  Might there be room for him – should he choose the path of enlightenment and goodness – to provide a supporting role, much as Antoninus was counted as one of Rabbi Yehuda's most ardent followers and fostered the conditions that allowed the Prince of Israel to compile the Mishna?


            While there is a real tension that exists between the particularistic tendencies of our tradition on the one hand and the universalistic tone of much of its teachings on the other, the above analysis may assist in ameliorating that tension.  It emerges in fact that while the people of Israel have a unique mission in the world that often puts them at odds with empires and tyrants, there is yet room for collaboration with sympathetic powers.  Those that recognize the truth of Israel's teachings though they may be reluctant to accept all of its demanding responsibilities can yet be counted among Israel's supporters, much as Antoninus is remembered fondly in Rabbinic literature as one of Esav's finest sons.


Shabbat Shalom