This week’s parsha ends with a list of the tribes of Edom:
And Rashi ends his commentary on the parsha with two words:
I have three questions: we all know that Edom as a whole is identified with Rome. Where does that come from? Why connect Rome specifically this אלוף מגדיאל? And what is bothering Rashi?
Some examples of identifying Edom and Rome:
But I don’t think anyone takes that literally. The Romans are not genetic descendants of Edom, the Semitic kingdom south of Israel. They are Europeans, and the midrash acknowledges that:
Kittim are mentioned as descendants of Yaphet, through Greece:
So what is the connection? It could be that Edom is simply a synecdoche for “historical enemy of Israel”, and certainly Edom meets that criterion:
That is clear from this week’s haftorah:
And so, when we read Ovadiah’s prophecy of the destruction of Edom, we are thinking about the Romans, praying for their destruction:
But, pace Rav Soloveitchik, the identification of Edom with Rome seems more specific than that. A common hypothesis is that the first foreign king of the Second Temple era, who came to represent Roman domination over Judea, was Herod. And he was an Idumean (the Roman province named for Edom):
But calling Rome “Edom” comes well after the time of Herod. Dr. Simkovich suggests that it was a response to the Christian polemic that identified Esau with the Jews and Jacob with the Christians:
And for the Ramban, at least, that is exactly what חז״ל meant: Edom was Christianity:
Certainly, when the ראשונים are looking at the “modern Edom”, they aren’t thinking about the ancient Roman empire. They are thinking about Christendom. And I think that goes back to Rashi’s cryptic comment, מגדיאל היא רומי. It comes from the פרקי דרבי אליעזר:
Note that both names in the last pasuk are read as Rome: אַלּוּף מַגְדִּיאֵל אַלּוּף עִירָם זה רומי. The midrash explains the name עירם:
The Maharal explains the name מגדיאל:
[Though I might say it comes from מגד א־ל, ”the bounty of G-d“]
Midrashically, there are
two approaches to our ”twin“ Rome/Edom/Christianity/Western Civilization. There is עירם, the one who piles up treasure for מלך המשיח. They only have value for what we can get out of them. And there is מגדיאל, the one whom G-d has made great. They have their own inherent value and should be appreciated for that. Do we take from or participate in? That dialectic has always been part of our understanding of our relationship with the outside world.
So many of the commentaries of the ראשונים have explicit anti-Christian polemics. There is question whether Rashi’s commentary is the same. Here Rashi says מגדיאל היא רומי. Here, at least, I think Rashi is telling us that Rome is represented by אלוף מגדיאל היא רומי: כי השם יתברך מגדיל אותו.