After 20 years of marriage, Yitzchak's prayers are answered and Rivka conceives twins. The pregnancy is extremely painful. G-d reveals to Rivka that the suffering is a microcosmic prelude to the worldwide conflict that will rage between the two great nations descended from these twins, Rome and Israel. Esav is born, and then Yaakov, holding onto Esavs heel. They grow and Esav becomes a hunter, a man of the physical world, whereas Yaakov sits in the tents of Torah developing his soul. On the day of their grandfather Avraham's funeral, Yaakov is cooking lentils, the traditional mourner's meal. Esav rushes in, ravenous from a hard days hunting, and sells his birthright (and its concomitant spiritual responsibilities) for a bowl of lentils, demonstrating his unworthiness for the position of firstborn. A famine strikes Canaan and Yitzchak thinks of escaping to Egypt, but G-d tells him that because he was bound as a sacrifice, he has become holy and must remain in the Holy Land. He relocates to Gerar in the land of the Philistines, where, to protect Rivka, he has to say she is his sister. The Philistines grow jealous of Yitzchak when he becomes immensely wealthy, and Avimelech the king asks him to leave. Yitzchak re-digs three wells dug by his father, prophetically alluding to the three future Temples. Avimelech, seeing that Yitzchak is blessed by G-d, makes a treaty with him. When Yitzchak senses his end approaching, he summons Esav to give him his blessings. Rivka, acting on a prophetic command that the blessings must go to Yaakov, arranges for Yaakov to impersonate Esav and receive the blessings. When Esav in frustration reveals to his father that Yaakov has bought the birthright, Yitzchak realizes that the birthright has been bestowed correctly on Yaakov and confirms the blessings he has given Yaakov. Esav vows to kill Yaakov, so Rivka sends Yaakov to her brother Lavan where he may find a suitable wife.
"Two nations are in your womb; two regimes... The might shall pass from one regime to the other, and the elder shall serve the younger." (Bereishet 25:23)
I have a picture in my mind of the Olympic games at Nuremberg in 1936. Adolf Hitler (may his name be erased) is at the top of what seems to be an interminable staircase, the grandstand stretching down behind him. His arm is held out in a halfhearted version of the salute he stole from the Romans.
The Nazis stole quite a few things from the Romans. The symbol of the eagle. The lust for empire and an implacable cruelty in achieving it. And the love of pomp and pageantry.
The Romans, however, had a ceremony that beat the Nazis hands down. The Talmud describes the following scene: Once every seventy years in Rome, they would take a man and place him on the back of a lame man. They dressed him in the clothes of Adam HaRishon, the first man (their possession of these clothes dated back to their common ancestor, Esav). Stretched across his face was the mummified flesh of the face of Rabbi Yishmael. (Rabbi Yishmael the Kohen Gadol was one of the ten martyrs whose memory we commemorate in the Yom Kippur Mussaf service. After he was murdered, they flayed his skin from his skull and preserved it in aspic.) Around the man’s neck they hung pieces of gold. In this manner, they would parade him through markets whose streets were paved with onyx and proclaim, “Sach quiri pilaster — The calculation of the end was a fraud... What use was the trickery of the trickster and the fraud of the defrauder [Yaakov]?” They would finish off by saying, “Woe to this one [the one on top] when this one [the lame man] will rise up.”
The relationship of Esav and Yaakov, twins from birth, is symbiotic. When one is up, the other is down. It cannot be that both are up or down, because the cause of one being down is the cause of the other being up — like two ends of a seesaw.
In the Yom Kippur service of the Beit HaMikdash, we find another symbiotic relationship. There was a lottery with two identical goats. One goat was sent to its death in the desert. It represented the negative drive, the embodiment of Esav. The other goat was offered on the Holy Altar. This goat represented the Jewish people and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for G-d.
A lottery by its very essence means that this makes the other that; the one going to Azazel — to the desert — causes the other one to end up on the Mizbe’ach and vice versa. It’s a symbiotic relationship. A seesaw. Two sides of the same coin. Positive and negative.
When the twins were born, Yaakov was found clutching the heel of Esav. For most of history, the jackboot of Esav’s heel has been on the hand of Yaakov. The word Yaakov is connected to the word for “heel,” ekev. The heel is the lowest part of the body. We are living now in the “heel” of time, when events are drawing to their final climax. But Yaakov still seems to be shlepping along through the annals of world history like a lame man. We seem to be the “fossils of history,” as Arnold Toynbee called the Jewish people. And Esav is still “high”.
Esav was the progenitor of the Roman nation. When the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, that faith became the state religion of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire spawned the “Holy Roman Empire”. And subsequently, the spiritual mantle of the Holy Roman Empire was assumed by the Catholic Church in the West and the Orthodox Church in the East. These scions are the direct inheritors of the legacy of Rome— and of Esav.
Every believing Christian has it as an article of faith that G-d gave the Torah to the Jews at Sinai. Without that, Christianity doesn’t get off the ground. But they have a “new” testament, while the Jewish people are left with the “old” testament. In other words, Rome sees us shlepping along like the lame man of history, while Christianity rides theologically on the back of Judaism.
The religion of Rome wears the mask of Judaism; it takes the visage, the flayed skin of the high priest, and puts it on itself and claims to be the “real thing”. But their relationship with G-d is only skin deep. It is, in the most literal sense, a masquerade. Their using the visage of a man is apt — for they took G-d and turned Him into a man.
Why did this parade in Rome take place only every seventy years? Seven suggests the natural world. Seven days of the week, seven notes on the musical scale, seven colors in the rainbow. Multiply seven by ten and you get seventy. Ten is also a natural cycle. After ten, numbers go back to one; there is no single number higher than nine. Ten is the completion of the cycle. The Romans were saying: The calculation of your progenitor Yaakov was flawed. The natural cycle has fulfilled itself, and you are still the underdog — and we are still the master race.
“Woe to this one when the other will rise up.” The name Yaakov means “he who will come in the end.” The Western world has become like a Vegas lounge lizard, a vast media machine with gold medallions dangling across his bared chest, crooning into his radio mike: “The calculation of the end was a fraud... The calculation of the end was a fraud...”
We are the children of Yaakov, the children of Israel. Our eyes are Heaven-bent, waiting for that day when Yaakov will “come in the end” — because he will come — and Esav’s master race will fall like a concrete eagle from the roof of the Third Reich.
- Source: Based on an idea by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer