Past Weekly Shabbat Message
(Torah Portion: Toldos) The Roman Emperor and Rebbe
Our matriarch Rivka conceived after many years of praying and hoping for a child. Rivka’s excitement became dampened when she noticed that each time she passed a place where Torah was studied the baby would start kicking as if it wanted to get out, and when she passed a house of idol worship, the baby would also kick as if it wanted to emerge. She wondered, "Is it possible that she was carrying a confused child, one that was attracted to both Torah and idol worship?" In order not to upset or bring unnecessary worry to either her husband Yitzchok, or her father-in-law Avraham, Rivka sought the word of G-d through the sage and prophet Shem, the son of Noach.
Shem told her prophetically that it was not one baby she was carrying, rather it was twin boys. Each would father a separate and distinct nation – the Jews and the Romans. When Rivka gave birth, they called the first son Eisav, and the second son Yaacov. In due time, their unique personalities became apparent. Yaacov sat diligently and studied Torah, while Eisav was a rambunctious hunter, deceiver, and idolater who acted immorally.
When Shem prophesized about the two nations Rivka was to bear, the Torah writes the words, “two nations” in a way that can be read “two great ones”, which prompted our Sages to teach us that Shem was alluding to a time in history when the Land of Israel would be under the Roman rule and the wealthy Rebbe Yehudah Hanasi would be personal friends with the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. (2nd and 3rd century CE)
Reb Yehudah Hanasi – which translates as Rabbi Yehudah the Prince, is also known to us as Rabainu Hakodosh – Our saintly teacher, and was affectionately called Rebbe – Our teacher, because he compiled the Mishna (Oral Law) and was the teacher of all Israel.
Due to the Rebbe Yehudah HaNasi’s personal relationship with Antoninus, the Jews enjoyed unprecedented peace and tranquility during this entire period, making it possible for the Sages to concentrate on the intricate and complicated task of compiling the many tractates of the Mishna.
The Medrash relates an interesting event: When Rebbe was born, the Romans decreed a moratorium on circumcisions. Nonetheless Rebbe’s parents had him circumcised. The Caesar sent for the parents to appear with the baby at the palace. Antoninus’ mother who had just given birth, recognizing the grave danger awaiting the couple, had compassion on them and offered to switch her son Antoninus, with Yehudah. When the couple and the baby were called in, the Caesar saw that the baby was uncircumcised and dismissed them. The Caesar commented, “I am well aware that they circumcised their child, however seeing that their G-d performs miracles for them I hereby rescind my decree forbidding circumcision!”
Besides the kinship that arose because they were temporarily switched, Antoninus had the merit to nurse from Rebbe’s virtuous mother while they were waiting to see the Caesar. The milk that Antoninus ingested from this holy source inspired him to eventually study Torah clandestinely with Rebbe each day. The Talmud relates that Antoninus had a secret cave that led from his palace located in Tiberius to Rebbe’s home. He requested that there be no one present in the room while he studied so that he should not be informed on to the authorities.
He later circumcised himself and converted to Judaism.
The Talmud relates a number of philosophical and practical conversations that Rebbe had with Antoninus.
Rabbi Gedalia Schoor o.b.m. explains that ideally, Yaacov and Eisav were meant to enjoy a harmonious and complimentary partnership. Eisav was to defeat evil and Yaacov was to promote good. But this did not transpire. Eisav failed his task and both roles were adopted by Yaacov. However, for a short period in history the ideal relationship was realized through Antoninus and Rebbe.
Wishing you a most uplifting, peaceful
and inspirational Shabbos!
Rabbi Dovid Saks
Rabbi Dovid Saks