By Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
We were never taught this is still going on today.
– Gaby Kirschner in The New York Times
We were never taught.
History is an arc that bends towards justice.
It can’t happen here.
Not once in our long history have we walked any path, anywhere on the face of the earth, where we have not been “reminded”, reminded of the animosity that the nations feel toward us, reminded of the hate directed at us despite the gifts God has given the world through us, reminded of the violence the nations visit upon us. Some reminders are more vicious than others. Some more jolting because of our own determination not to face the truth of our existence.
Since that Shabbat morning in Squirrel Hill, much has been written about the warm, embracing, chesed-oriented, Fred Rogers neighborhood. I can personally attest to the truth of this description of Squirrel Hill. Three of our four children were born there. I am thankful for the providential destiny that allowed them to breath Squirrel Hill’s air and be enveloped by its oasis of love, common decency and civility; its unassuming warmth and kindness. One Shabbat in late 1985, when walking with them to shul in Brooklyn several weeks after leaving Pittsburgh, we passed throngs of Jews doing the same thing. Suddenly, one of them innocently asked, “Abba, why don’t they say Good Shabbos?” There are no strangers in Squirrel Hill!
Even among so many fellow Jews, they felt the absence of the warmth and familiarity even strangers afforded each other in Squirrel Hill. Certainly, if there were an “American Eden” for Jews, Squirrel Hill was that place – seemingly happy and peaceful, where Jews live together and love each other without the rancor and discord of big cities like New York; where non-Jews respect and share their respect and civility. Happy. Peaceful. Safe. Until it wasn’t, and the truth of Jewish experience desecrated that wonderful place.
Did anyone who sat at their Seder tables last Pesach in Squirrel Hill ever contemplate the truth of their words, “…in every generation they rise against us to annihilate us”? Of course not. Evil is about history, other places. Other times.
It can’t happen here.
In parashat Toldot, we have another of our imahot having trouble conceiving. Yitzhak prays hard to God that his line may continue. Jewish continuity cannot be taken for granted. The imahot cannot simply give birth. The difficulty they experience in conceiving does not speak to barrenness so much as the truth that each generation is a miracle, never to be taken for granted. The emergence and survival of each generation cannot be simply assumed.
At the Seder, even as we rejoice over our freedom and redemption, we remember and declare that she’bechol dor va’dor omdim aleinu le’chaloteinu – in every generation they “rise against us to annihilate us”. Jewish existence and survival is not certain.
Rivkah’s pregnancy is tough. “The children agitated within her, and she said, ‘If so, why am I thus?’…” To emphasize the struggle that is to be, Chazal explain that this “agitation” Rivkah felt and sensed in va’yitrotzezu related to Yaakov’s wanting to be born when she passed by the yeshiva of Shem and Ever, and Esav’s desire to emerge when passing the temple of idolatry. In short, the agitation within her womb was the struggle that would express itself between the world of Yaakov vs. Esav, a struggle that never ceases. As God communicates to her, “Two nations are in your womb.”
Her two as-yet-unborn infants represent two nations, two totally conflicting ideologies and ways of life – Israel and Edom. Their rivalry and struggle in the womb represent the future rivalries between them. As the Mizrachi puts it, “The turmoil within her was due to the irreconcilable conflict between the two nations that was already taking shape.”
The timeline of the history of the Jewish people is long. And not one century is free of our suffering; not one century in which the struggle between Yaakov and Esav is not manifest. Yes, sometimes bloodier than at other times, but always there. Sometimes an entire civilization rises up against us. Sometimes a “lone” hater.
As it has been, so it is. Until the advent of Moshiach. This is a fact of our existence. We have sometimes allowed ourselves to “dream” otherwise, but God is clear in His brief summary of Jewish history, “Two nations are in your womb; two regimes from your insides shall be separated; the might shall pass from one regime to the other, and the elder shall serve the younger.”
Two regimes. One dedicated to justice, morality, decency and ethics. The other to barbarity, viciousness, bloodshed. By definition, they cannot be in harmony. One must always have their upper hand, either on the battlefield or in men’s hearts and minds. There is not surety as to which will be strong. Only one thing can be, Chazal teach, “They will not be equally great. When one rises the other falls.”
“Two nations are in your womb” – shnei goyim b’bitneich. Goyim is generally spelled gimel, vav, yud, mem. Here it is written, gimel, yud, yud, mem. Pronounced “goyim” it reads, “geyim” – proud ones. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 11a) tells us this alludes to two great leaders who would descend from Yaakov and Esav – Antonius, the Roman emperor, a descendant of Esav, and Rebbi, the codifier of the Mishna, a descendant of Yaakov. According to the Talmud, both geyim – proud in the sense that they were both extremely wealthy. So wealthy that they “… were always able to serve their guests radishes, lettuce and cucumbers, at anytime of the year, in season or not in season, even if they needed to be imported from far away markets…”
What’s missing here? Our focus is on two rival nations, on the conflict between good and evil and suddenly Chazal teach that the correct reading is not goyim but geyim? That our two thousand years of conflict and pain is somehow affected by… vegetables?
Clearly something much more significant is at work here, something that speaks to the Yaakov-Esav struggle, a struggle that would continue until “Saviors shall go up to Mount Zion to judge Mount Esav, and the Lord’s shall be the kingdom…”. Until that blessed time, we need some direction as to how to deal with Esav. And this is why we must turn our attention to Rebbi and Antoninus.
My grandfather, HaRav Bezalel Zev Shafran’s, profound insight (Sh’elot U’tshuvot R’baz – Yalkut HaChanochi 6) gives insight to the significance of the Rebbi and Antoninus relationship and its lesson for all times. My grandfather analyzes this unique relationship between these two geyim, which is elaborated upon in detail and supported with many examples in an almost entire Daf of Talmud Avodah Zarah (10a,b) which conveys the closeness of the relationship between Rav Yehuda HaNasi (Rebbi) and the Roman emperor Antoninus.
In the opening story on the Daf, Antoninus turns to Rebbi for advice on how to establish his son as successor, something most unusual as it was the Senate that chose the leader and that body generally refused to have a son follow his father as emperor. Elaborating on the very close relationship between the two geyim, the Talmud also describes how Antoninus had a secret tunnel erected between their houses so that he could always visit with Rebbi and serve him as needed. The communication between them was always open, honest and discreet. (Antoninus eager to have his son succeed him, was nevertheless rightly concerned and obsessively worried about leaks.) He sought Rebbi’s advice. Rebbi knew he must watch his words and tongue. So, he devised ways and means to never express his advice other than in “mashal v’chida” or just “b’remiza”. My grandfather makes clear that he spoke only through allegory, never through a direct answer. Even to speak in whispers was unacceptable because one could never know, the Talmud writes, if a bird will bring the message through the heavens. (wiretapped!)
So, when Antoninus complained to Rebbi that the powers at Rome are badgering him, his response was to take him to his garden and pluck one radish, and then another and another… In other words, pluck them one at a time, not all at once.
So too lettuce. The Talmud tells of Gira, Antoninus’ daughter, who sinned with another man. Antoninus sought Rebbi’s advice as to how to handle the situation but did not want anyone to know of it. So, he did not as much as utter the words that she sinned /strayed. Instead, he sent gargira, a leafy green who name was like hers. Rebbi sent Antoninus chasa – a kind of lettuce, whose meaning is to have mercy Chasa, that is, mercy. No leaks. No betrayal. Only discreet, responsible, trusting communication. My grandfather cites other examples from the Talmudic portrayal of this trusting relationship, including when Rebbi replaced large overgrown radishes with small radishes on his roof’s garden, conveying the message that the older, tired out ministers should be replaced with new, younger ones.
My grandfather’s lesson was to emphasize the discretion and trust these two giants, each of his own domain, developed over time; how they found the perfect way to communicate so they could never be misunderstood. Rebbi’s messages and responses were always filled with wisdom and sharpness (radishes!) that no one could ever “wiretap” or eavesdrop. Antoninus always understood the response he received.
We see in my grandfather’s wisdom that the Talmud was not concerned with vegetables at all! My grandfather concludes that these two geyim who were always able to serve their guests radishes, lettuce and cucumbers were never at a loss for trust, never at a loss for discretion. “…these two greats, communicated with each other b’remiza, discreetly, and never did they lack radishes or lettuce, because theirs was a language of allegory and riddle; in these riddles they were able to hide their most innermost thoughts, so others would never understand.”
Our ability to overcome Esav and his tactics, whether militarily or diplomatically has nothing to do with the vegetables. It can only be done with a trusting means of direct communication, one without leaks, misinformation, and disinformation, without fake news.
The battle between Yaakov and Esav continues unabated. We desperately need a Rebbi and Antoninus, but one would be hard put to find any comparison or similarity to this ideal relationship in today’s world. There are those who are wishful, believing such communication exists today between Washington and Jerusalem. I pray it is so. But I struggle mightily with identifying a Rebbi and an Antoninus other than in “someone’s” gilded sense of being an emperor! As for discretion? In our current political and cultural environment? With our “Antoninus”?
Meanwhile, our hearts are filled with pain. Our tears do not dry. The words of 11 kaddishim for 11 Kedoshim echo in our ears.
It couldn’t happen here, not in this land of lettuces and radishes, big and small.
Until it did.