A Larger Than Life Conflict
Rivka, like others of the matriarchs, was barren. Through prayer, she miraculously conceived, but hers was not to be an ordinary pregnancy, nor were the twins she bore going to be unexceptional:
And Yitzhak pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, for she was barren, and the Lord granted his plea, and Rivka his conceived. And the children clashed together (mitrotztzim) within her, and she said, ‘Then why me?’ and she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her: ‘Two nations – in your womb, two peoples from your loins shall issue. People over people shall prevail, the elder, the younger’s slave.’ Genesis 25:21-23)
Rivka was overcome with concern over the significance of what seemed to her to be a battle in her womb and sought counsel. In turn, she was offered an enigmatic divine prophecy which alluded to conflict. In the end, two very different children were born to Rivka:
And the lads grew up and Esau was a man skilled in hunting, a man of the field, and Yaakov was a simple man, a dweller in tents (Genesis 25:27)
Added together, the in-utero quarrel, the divine prophecy, the radical differences between the twins together with their quarrels over the both the birthright of the firstborn and, later on, their father’s blessing proved fertile ground for seeing in this sibling rivalry something more significant than an simply an episode in the life of a family.
In the rabbinic tradition, the contentious relationship between these two brothers metamorphized into a symbol for the eternal clash between two civilizations: Yaakov representing Judaism and Esau representing Rome (and later on, Christianity). For the sages in Eretz Yisrael, this conflict represented not only their everyday reality living under centuries of Roman domination, but something much deeper and more pervasive.
A debate between two prominent Eretz Yisrael sages from the period of the Talmud captures the tenor of this conflict:
And the children clashed together (mitrotztzim) within her – Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish. Rabbi Yohanan said: This one and that one running to kill each other; Resh Lakish said: This one undoes the ways of one and that one undoes the ways of this one. Rabbi Berekhiah in the name of Rabbi Levi [said:] One should not say that this conflict began only after [the twins] left the womb of their mother; rather even while they were still in the womb. (adapted from Bereishit Rabbah 63:6 Theodore Albeck p. 682-3)
Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish, commenting on the unusual word “mitrotzetz”, see in the conflict between Yaakov and Esau a reflection on the struggle between the Jewish world and the non-Jewish world. For Rabbi Yohanan, this “battle” is a life threatening one while for Resh Lakish, the struggle is one where each side attempts to erase the identity of the other. Rabbi Levi’s remarks indicate that there is a certain inevitability to this conflict as if it is intrinsic to the very makeup of the world.
These projections have an eerie ring to us because they somehow mirror the existential threats facing Jews today where some threaten them physically while others assault them for having the audacity to identify as Jews. The only answer, of course, is to stand strong, to be firm and have pride in who we are.