This past week was Thanksgiving. It makes you think back to that original Thanksgiving dinner of Pilgrims and Indians. It is one of those moments in history I wish I could have seen. This small band of Pilgrims miraculously surviving the first winter with the aid of Native Americans and giving “thanks” together.
On one level, those people were united in their time. On another level, much strife and even warfare lay ahead. We fast forward to our own times. While America was founded on common values of freedom and the pursuit of happiness, there are profoundly different ideas of what those values mean for people today.
Americans live in one country. In a sense, we are one society. But we find that our society is marked not only by diversity, but rampant hostility over important differences. One wonders if the United States be a unified people in generations and centuries to come.
In the Torah, there is a great focus on people who come from the same society and yet, their paths diverge. We first have Kayin and Hevel—brothers, whose relationship ends in murder. Then we have the diverging paths of Yitzchak and Yishmael, followed by those Yaakov and Esav. In both of those first two generations, one son went on to build the Jewish family while the other son built a different society.
In the generation of Yosef and the tribes, all the sons remained a part of the Jewish people. And yet, they also diverged, as their lives were defined by bitter rift and division. On some level, that division persisted throughout Jewish history. In all of these examples, there are multiple people and their perspectives. They all come from the same place they have every reason to be similar. And yet, they are not.
Nowhere is this truer than the birth of the two “twins” Yaakov and Esav. Here we have two boys who grow in the same womb and are raised in the same home by the same parents. One of these boys became the father of the Jewish people and the other became the father of Edom, or Roman and western civilization.
When One Rises, the Other Falls
The Torah indicates that the eventual split was in their DNA. Even when shew was pregnant, Rivka sensed with that these two fetuses were running in opposite directions. The boys agitated within her to the point she wondered why she wanted to be pregnant to begin with.
Rivka received a prophecy stating that the two boys were at odds and that “might” would pass from one to the other. When one rises, the other will fall. Why is it that the future was predetermined? Couldn’t the Torah have advanced a scenario where people work together and emerge as one? It seems like the Torah is setting things up for failure.
Couldn’t the Torah conceive of a scenario where two very different boys will separate from the womb and yet drive together toward the same goals? Sibling rivalry is a reality. But did they have to go in such opposite directions?
These two twins did not look alike! Esav was hairy and ruddy and Yaakov was a smooth man. Yet, our rabbis point to similarities between them. Rivka is told “Shney Goyim B’vitneych”, there are two nations in your womb. Rashi indicates that the phrase “Shney Goyim” implies that they are similar. They are each called a “nation” in their own right. Rashi adds, “Geyim Kesiv”— the term Goyim is written with two yuds, as if to say “proud ones” instead of “nations”.
Each of these future nations had an inner pride. Rashi elaborates. This refers to Rebbi and Antoninus both of whom had tables adorned with delicacies year-round. In other words, when the Torah writes that there are “two nations” it means that these boys are “goyim” or “geyim”, proud ones. These two proud ones are represented by two figures who lived around the time of the destruction of the Temple in the 1st and 2nd Century.
Rebbi was a prince amongst the Jewish people and Antoninus, whom Rebbi personally knew, was a Roman leader. Both were dignified and noble. The Torah for its part simply writes that there were two nations. How does Rashi see in that simple phrase a reference to some historical figures that lived so many years later?
Rebbi & Antoninus
The Maharal of Prague explains the Rashi is offering prototypes of what these future nations are. Rebbi and Antoninus are an example of these two peoples. And in fact, like their ancestors Yaakov and Esav, they were similar in a number of ways. Both Rebbi and Antoninus were proud leaders who conducted themselves with dignity.
Yet, says the Maharal, there was a critical difference. The difference lies in the underlying purpose of the dignity they expressed. Rome did many wonderful things. They built roads, bridges, bathhouses and conducted themselves with nobility, at least in their dress and delicacies. The purpose of all that was material benefit and sensual pleasure.
Rebbi and the Jews were also dignified. Rebbi was a very wealthy man and he conducted himself like a prince. But what was the purpose? What was his underlying goal? Personal gain and pleasure?
At the end of his life, Rebbi declared that he never derived pleasure from this world for personal gain. His underlying purpose and goal was to serve G-d, to walk in the path of HaShem. There were these two Goyim, or Geyim, two individuals who had within a sense of inner dignity. Yet, where they took that inner sense was not the same place.
Two people can be born in similar circumstances. They may live in the same time and be raised in the same society. Maybe they have similar strenghts. But the key to understanding who they are is this: what are the underlying goals and values that drive them?
If the values are different, these two similar people in the long run will diverge very far apart. As the Torah testifies, the societies Esav and Yaakov built were as different as night and day. One is a small Jewish society that sees its underlying mission as spreading the name of G-d. The other is a militaristic society, secular by comparison.
Sometimes in life, we can be with other people and we feel and think that we are similar. Maybe we grew up together. Maybe we run in the same circles. And yet, underneath, there is something very different.
That difference might spell a point of departure where two people separate in mutually exclusive paths. You can think of it as a crossroads.
There are times that people come together in the end, like the brothers who had shared values. There are times when divergence is destiny, like Esav and Yaakov. In their case, Rivka had a prophecy that they would prove be men of far different values.
Sometimes in life, you can feel yourself at a point of divergence. When I was 16 years old, some of my non-Jewish friends invited me to a Christmas party. I figured that my friends were going to hang out, so I might as well join them. I went to the party, and soon in turned out that all my friends wanted to go Christmas caroling. Suddenly, I felt that I had an irreconcilable difference with my friends.
I realized in that moment our paths had to diverge. I made up an excuse and went home. Lying in bed that night, I thought about how different I was from my friends. As uncomfortable as that was, it was a moment of self-discovery.
Several years ago, I was speaking with a congregant about why they chose to become a part of Kesser Israel. This person told me that in their previous congregation, no one talked about G-d. It became a symbol in their mind about how different they were in that community.
Sometimes, we are with a group of people. It feels natural enough. Then you realize that you are meant, somehow, to find a society that better supports your inner values.
So the next time that you find yourself as a part of a group of people, ask yourself who you are, and who your friends are.
Who are you in your life and with whom do you build your future?
Do you share common values with those around you?
Or is divergence your destiny?