Isaac and Rebecca had two sons: Esau and Jacob. Although they were twins, they were far from identical. Even during Rebecca’s pregnancy their character difference was visible. According to Jewish tradition, when the pregnant Rebecca stood near houses of study and prayer, Jacob struggled to come out, but when she passed temples of idolatry, Esau eagerly struggled to come out. (1)
Upon birth, Esau came out reddish, as hairy as a fur coat. This is usually taken as a sign that he would be a shedder of blood. (2) They called him Esau, the Hebrew term for “made,” according to Rashi (3) “because he was made and developed with hair as one who is much older.” His twin brother then emerged and his hand was grasping Esau’s heal. Isaac called the second twin Jacob. If Esau was born physically complete, Jacob was born incomplete, as it says, “Jacob was born circumcised.” (4) The boys grew up, and when they reached the age of thirteen, Jacob went his way to the houses of learning and Esau went his way to the house of idolatry. (5)
Esau was a man who knew how to hunt, a man of the field. He ensnared people with their words, trapping them just as he would trap the animals he hunted. This is what the Midrash (6) has to say about him:
R. Abbahu said: he was a trapper and a man of the field, trapping [i.e. deceiving] at home… trapping in the field. He deceived at home asking his father, “How do you tithe salt?” (he wanted to show that he was concerned with doing the will of G-d, although he knew full well that salt was not a subject to the laws of tithes…)
He was also said to make himself “free like a field,” meaning that he acted in a promiscuous way. (7) Therefore, Esau was a manipulator, liar and cheat — not quite a good boy. He fulfilled his selfish passions without restraint.
Jacob, on the other hand, was a man who sat in tents, meaning that he was contented to surround himself with the study of G-d’s word. He was a scholar, inclined to serving G-d, honest, straight and born already marked with the sign of the covenant with G-d. The Torah describes him being a tam. Rashi explains that a tam is someone who is “not shrewd at deceiving.”
ISAAC SEES THE GOOD IN ESAU
Isaac grew old and his eyesight was fading. He called his elder son Esau, and said, “I am old and have no idea when I will die. Now take up your equipment, your quiver and bow and go out to the field and hunt me game. Make it into a tasty dish, the way I like it and bring it to me to eat. My soul will then bless you before I die.” (8) The Midrash (9) comments:
Sharpen your weapons so that you do not feed me “nevelos” and “terefos” (an animal slaughtered with a dull knife is, according to Jewish law, unfit to be eaten). Again take your own weapons, so that you do not supply me with proceeds of robbery or violence.
If Isaac suspected Esau of this kind of misconduct and mistrusted his reliability, then why did he want to bless him?
Isaac was clearly not completely blind to Esau’s selfish inclinations; however, he believed that Esau was capable of applying his incredible self-confidence and strength towards the service of G-d. Isaac hoped that Esau would transform his selfishness into maintaining a healthy sense of “self” in service to G-d rather than losing him self to G-d. Esau had great potential to achieve the ultimate — to be in love. He thereby indicated to him to take his skills and apply them to doing mitzvos (religious duties), in this case themitzvah of honoring his father.
The great master of Kabbalah, (10) Rabbi Isaac Luria, who is referred to as the Ari zt’l explains:
“He was a hunter with his mouth” (Genesis 25:28): Esau’s holy sparks came from the wisdom and understanding and knowledge in his mouth and from this holiness emerged converts who were great leaders of Israel; Shemayiah, Avtalion, Rebbe Meir and Rebbe Akiva.
The Ari zt”l (11) further comments:
“It is because of this, Isaac loved him hoping that maybe he would become rectified through this.”
Isaac saw that Esau had tremendous potential, seeing in him the sparks of Rebbe Meir and Rebbe Akivah — the masters of the Talmud.
The Talmud (12) teaches that:
G-d did not establish His covenant with Israel except for the sake of Oral Tradition, which refers to the Mishnah, Talmud and the Midrash.
It is through the involvement in Talmudic debate that scholars are empowered and rise to a status of godliness. (13)
These and those (opinions of the disputing sages) are the living words of Elohim [gods].
When people reach this level of divine significance and relationship to G-d they then fulfill the ultimate meaning of the covenant — a loving partnership.
The Torah scholar asserts himself and shares in making divine decisions through the dialectic of the Oral Tradition. He is entrusted with the responsibility for the interpretation and administration of G-d’s revealed word as embodied in the five books of Moses. New situations will arise in each generation and require critical legal decisions drawn from the laws and principles recorded by the prophet Moses and applied correctly. This takes great confidence and courage. However, this also takes great commitment, devotion and service to G-d. A Torah scholar must have a balanced sense of assertive powers and yet also humility and surrender.
There are several cases in Jewish history where the sages had to have the courage and initiative to break a Torah law for the sake of G-d, as it is written in Psalms: (14) It is a time to act for G-d they have dissolved Your law.
Rashi (15) explains: “When the time comes to do something for the Holy One, blessed be He, it is permitted to dissolve the Torah.”
Rashi, therefore, reads and interprets the verse like this: “Dissolve the law of G-d when it is a time to act for Him.”
The very fact that the Oral Tradition has been put into writing is itself a violation of the Jewish law that states that the Oral Tradition must remain oral and not written down.
We find that Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish were studying part of the Oral Tradition from a written text. Their behavior is justified on the basis that one can violate the law for the sake of G-d. They said: “Since it is impossible (i.e. to remember it all), it is a time to act for the sake of G-d.”
Imagine what courage it takes for a Torah sage, entrusted with the preservation of G-d’s Torah, to break one of its laws for the sake of G-d. Also imagine the great honesty, purity, reverence of G-d and service to G-d that is required of the sage to ensure that this violation of G-d’s law is truly and only for G-d’s sake without an iota of selfish motives even hidden in the recesses of his subconscious. Therefore, a Torah leader must actualize all his creative powers, courageously take initiative and assert himself while in humble service to G-d. He must be assertive in surrender.
Isaac hoped to balance Esau’s confidence and power with humbleness and surrender to G-d which would then make him a great world leader and model of true love and relationship with G-d. All he needed was a balance of Jacob’s character.
FINDING THE WHOLE IN ONE
Rebecca, however, thought that Esau was far off from making such adjustments. She saw that it was more realistic to nurture in Jacob some of the qualities of Esau. What Jacob needed was more assertion.
She said, “Now my son [Jacob] listen to me and heed my instructions. Go to the sheep and take two choice young kid-goats. I will prepare them the way your father likes. You must then bring it to your father, so that he will eat and bless you before he dies.”
“But my brother Esau is hairy,” replied Jacob, “I am smooth skinned.”
The Midrash (16) makes a strange comment about this dialogue: when Jacob describes Esau as hairy, he uses the Hebrew term “ish sa’ir,” which has the connotation of “demonic,” as in the verse from Isaiah, (17) “And satyrs (se’irim) shall dance there.” When he describes himself as smooth, he uses the Hebrew word chalak, having the same sense as in the verse from Deuteronomy, (18) “For the chelek (portion) of G-d is His people” which suggests that he was completely at one with G-d, so to speak, a part of G-d.
The Midrash compares Esau and Jacob to two men, one possessing a thick head of hair and the other bald, who stood near a threshing floor. When the chaff flew into the locks of the former, it became entangled in his hair. But when it flew on the head of the bald man he passed his hand over his head and easily removed it. In other words, hairy Esau’s wild demonic desires made him susceptible to getting messed up in the chaff of life; he was not able to easily cleanse himself of his wrongdoings. However, Jacob was a simple and straight fellow and was therefore less prone to getting caught up with his problems and any mistakes he might make he could easily fix.
This Midrash seems to indicate that Jacob was reluctant to do what Rebecca suggested not only because he feared getting caught by Isaac, but because he saw the act as lowering himself to Esau’s level. He did not want to incorporate qualities in himself that would make him vulnerable to sin, or endanger his state of purity and surrender by adopting such an orientation that would generate an even greater struggle with the evil inclination. His point was: Why complicate life? Let’s keep it simple.
When Jacob posed as Esau and deceived his father he actually accepted the struggles with the evil inclination implicit in the Esau-like orientation. He realized that for the sake of G-d and a true relationship of love he had to take this risk. Only a person capable of sinning and overcome the urge can really serve G-d. Only a person who is able to violate a loving relationship can really fulfill it. Only at the risk of sin and the struggle against it can humanity develop the type of selfhood necessary for establishing the covenant and reaching the ultimate experience of being in love. It is the struggle with the evil inclination that empowers us to “be” in love — maintain our distinct sense of self without losing ourselves in our loving service to G-d.
(1) Genesis Rabbah 63:6
(2) Rashi Genesis 25:25 and Genesis Rabbah 63:8
(3) Rashi Genesis 25:26
(4) Avos d’Rabbi Nasson 2
(5) Genesis Rabbah 63:10
(6) Genesis Rabbah 63:10
(7) Genesis Rabbah 63:10
(9) Genesis 27:1-4
(10) Genesis Rabbah 65:13
(11) Likutei Torah, Ovadiah
(12) Perei Eitz Chaim- Shaar 208:3
(13)Talmud, Gittin 60b
(14) Talmud, Eruvin 30b
(15) Psalms 119:126
(16) Talmud Yoma 49a
(17) Genesis Rabbah 65:15
(18) Isaiah 13:21
(19) Deuteronomy 32:9