When the Rav Yosef Kahaneman, the late founder and Rosh Hayeshiva of Ponevezh Yeshiva, once had a few hours to spare in Rome before his connecting flight. People were surprised when he said he wants to go into Rome to see something very important. He took a taxi to the Arch of Titus, one of Rome’s famous tourist sites, stayed there for a few minutes and then returned to the airport. Why did the Rosh Hayeshiva spend his valuable time visiting a tourist site?
His companions heard why. At the arch, Rav Kahaneman looked at the carving inside which depicts Roman soldiers triumphantly returning to Rome carrying the holy Menora from the Beis Hamikdash after Titus had conquered Jerusalem. With great emotion the Rosh Hayeshiva addressed the Roman leader. “What is left of your great empire today, Titus? It is a note in the history books. But the Jews together with our Torah are still alive.” Then he got back into the taxi and returned to the airport.
Avoda Zara (12a) tells us that every seventy years there was a special celebration in Rome. A healthy man, symbolizing Eisav, put on clothes decorated with pictures of wild animals similar to the clothes which Eisav stole from Nimrod, who stole them from Odom Horishon. He sat on the shoulders of a lame man representing Yaakov, whose leg was injured by the Sar shel Eisav as described in Bereishis ( 32:32). They placed over ‘Eisav’s’ head the preserved face of Rebbe Yishmael who had been murdered with the other harugei malchus. His beauty was admired by the daughter of the Roman commander who requested that his facial form be preserved. And it was kept for centuries in the Roman archives. Hung from ‘Eisav’s neck was a precious stone and his legs were adorned with precious jewelry. Some say the streets were decorated with precious jewelry. They then proclaimed, “The prophecy of Yaakov that the Jews would be redeemed Bereishis (49:1) was false. The brother of our master was a fraud. What did the cheat gain by his cheating? ” And then they called out, “Whoever has seen, has seen. Whoever has not seen, won’t see it again for seventy years.”
This symbolized what the Romans, descendants of Eisav, saw as their victory over the Jews, descendants of Yaakov. This celebration every seventy years was based on Yirmiya’s prophecy that the Jews would return from their golus after seventy years and therefore they celebrated that it had not come true, again.
However their triumphalism didn’t last so long. The Roman empire was eventually conquered by Barbarian and Gothic tribes about fifteen hundred years ago. The crumbling Arch of Titus is one of the few remnants of its triumphs, together with the remains of Hadrian’s Wall separating England and Scotland and a few other examples. Hence the significance of Rav Kahaneman’s visit. He went from Rome back to Ponevezh Yeshiva where thousands of talmidim are still learning the Torah which Titus thought he had conquered.
The much-respected former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Yisroel Lau once enthralled the audience at an Encounter conference in London with a story when Julius Caesar came back from the dead and arrived in Rome on an Alitalia plane. As he appeared at the top of the steps he proclaimed, “Veni, vidi, vici.” Nobody knew what he was talking about. He called out,” I am Julius Caesar, returned from the dead.” One person looked up briefly before returning to his work. A similar scene was taking place in Athens when Alexander the Great arrived on an Olympus flight. He greeted the airport workers with a few words of ancient Greek. Nobody understood him. He read out Homer’s Odyssey in the original. An airport official asked him to move aside so that the other passengers could get by. Meanwhile Moshe Rabbeinu was returning to Eretz Yisroel and as he stood on the tarmac, he said that he was Moshe Rabbeinu. One of the workers taking in the suitcases stopped and called out, “My name is also Moshe!” Moshe Rabbeinu then proclaimed, Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echod and all present joined in.
A fascinating detail which the Gemoro (ibid ) reveals was that the person quoted by Rashi in our parsha as a famous descendent of Eisav, Antoninus, was not only Rebbe’s counterpart but became Rebbe’s talmid and eventually a ger tzedek. Although he was the Roman Emperor, he would go through a secret tunnel to come to Rebbe to learn Torah. Antonius honoured Rebbe by serving him food and drink and when required, he would crouch down to make it easier for Rebbe to get on his bed.
However, this should not make us complacent. Eisav’s empire is no more but his spiritual descendants are very much in evidence. Chazal say that Eisav denied Hashem and committed immorality and murder on the day he became barmitzvah. Having discarded the yolk of Torah, he followed his lowest instincts. Even people who appear to be polite and sophisticated, without yiras shomayim are capable of the most gruesome sins. This is no less true today when people give up belief in even such basics as the Ten Commandments and then not only practice immorality but try to insist that we respect their “lifestyle.”
The Bach says that we end davening with the second paragraph of Oleinu every day to counteract the influence of idol- worshipers or other sinners we will meet in the market place. We should not feel that they represent another, possibly valid, ‘lifestyle’. Soon they will all recognize their mistakes and “lecho tichra kol berech uleshova kol loshon. They will bow down to You and swear only by Your Name.”
The Medrash says that when Eisav stops crying, the Moshiach will come. The late Dayan Swift used to explain this as follows: Eisav is crying, said Dayan Swift, because of what he thinks as the injustice of Yaakov’s being given the blessings when he is no better than him. Yaakov’s descendants continue to sin, so why does he get the blessings instead of me? If this is the case, we can understand why Eisav is crying and indeed why the Moshiach is not here yet.
The onus is on us dry up Eisav’s tears. His spiritual descendants dominate the society we live in. And they want us to imitate their lifestyle and teach it to our children. It is up to us to make crystal clear what the Torah permits and what it doesn’t; with whom to associate and with whom not to associate; what is the way of Yaakov and what is the way of Eisav. Then the Moshiach will come.