Rabbi Milevsky's Thought of the Week: Toldot - 5772
ANOTHER UNDERSTANDING OF ‘TWO NATIONS’
In the beginning of this week’s portion, our foremother, Rivkah, was having difficulty during her pregnancy. The Midrash teaches that whenever Rivkah walked by Shem’s study hall or a temple of idol worship, she felt the child stirring in her womb. This phenomenon confused her. At one point the child seemed righteous, and then, by demonstrating a desire for paganism, evil. After consulting Shem, the son of Noach, Rivkah was informed that; “Two nations are in your womb, two governments will separate from inside you, the upper hand will go from one government to the other and the greater will serve the younger.” The Talmud explains that the phrase “two nations” refers to Antoninus (according to some - Marcus Aurelius Antoninus), and Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, the sage who codified the Mishnah.
Commentators find it difficult to understand this interpretation. What led to this far-fetched association? Is it not more likely that the phrase “two nations” refers to Yaakov and Esav rather than to a pair of men who would live thousands of years after Rivkah’s death?
Commentators explain that Yitzchak envisioned a partnership where Esav would discipline the nations that oppose monotheism, while Yaakov would teach the doctrines of Avraham. Between the two of them, they would conquer the world and introduce the belief in the One G-d to all of humanity. Yitzchak’s ideal vision of a partnership eventually did become a reality. Antoninus and Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi embodied the ideal Yaakov-Esav relationship.
Antoninus, a descendant of Esav, granted Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi a tranquil life of goodness and prosperity, and made it possible for him to compile the Mishnah and secure the authenticity of the Oral Law for all generations to come.
This is why the Sages explain that Shem’s message to Rivkah refers to these two men.