The rivalry between Esav and Ya’akov begins in utero, and it never really ends. The dynamic between the two is the focus of almost all of this week’s Torah reading, Toldot. From the struggles in their mother’s womb, to the race to emerge first from the birth canal, to the negotiations over the birthright, to the deceptive plot to gain their father’s blessing, the twins are in constant competition. It’s no small wonder, therefore, that the tension extends beyond their lifetimes.
Some scholars suggest that the regional rivalry between ancient Israel and their neighbor, Edom, is what generated the narratives of conflict. The Biblical prophets often curse Edom for episodes of enmity (see Ovadiah). But even after the original nation of Edom disappeared, Jewish tradition used their name as code for whatever group caused them grief. First, that was Rome; later, Christianity. Naturally, Israel identified with Ya’akov, and whoever was the current rival was a stand-in for Esav.
It might surprise you to learn that the early Christians (many of whom were Jews by origin) saw the world differently. After all, the oracle that Rivkah receives from God during her pregnancy was that “the older will serve the younger.” To Paul and his disciples, Christians were the new Israel/Ya’akov, and the defeated Jews who lost their Temple were Esav!
How do you think the Jews would react to such an interpretation of the Bible in light of historical events? On Shabbat morning, we’ll learn a classic Jewish legend about the destruction of the Temple that plays into the ancient rivalry between the twins and their family tree. And, with Thanksgiving soon upon us, we’ll reflect on the state of relations between branches of the family in our day.
Rabbi David Wise