Five Rashis a Week, Toledot: The Paths of Righteousness and Evil

A project in memory of Baruch Leib haKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya.

This week, the parsha introduces us to Esav and Ya’akov; in their actions and contrasts, as well as their parents’, we learn about some basic differences between righteous and evil people, in their actions and outcomes.

We Are Not Born New

Early on in the parsha, 25; 21, Yitzchak and Rivka pray for a child. The verse says Hashem responded to him, and Rashi comments that it was him and not her, the prayer of a righteous person whose parents were also righteous being answered before that of a righteous person whose parents were not righteous.

This isn’t the only way to read the verse, since it had referred to Yitzchak praying לנוכח אשתו, opposite his wife. Rashi had understood that they both prayed, in separate corners, but a literalist could assume the text referred to Hashem answering him because only he had been mentioned as praying.

Literalist or not, Rashi makes a point that society sometimes tries to deny, that we are all products of our parents and our upbringings. True, we have freewill, and we can sometimes or often overcome obstacles life (and our parents) may have put in our way. We are their products nonetheless.

We know this in physical terms—our height and other physical characteristics are largely genetic, and we don’t pretend otherwise. But some of us do assure ourselves we can change everything else, become whoever we choose.  Rashi says that much as we might change—and Rivkah obviously changed a great deal from the example of her childhood home—we also are always products of where we started.

He doesn’t mean her prayers weren’t good, or that she was personally lacking. He means that, however Hashem works the universe, Yitzchak’s lineage meant his prayers were accepted more quickly. To explain that fully, we’d have to develop a theory of how prayer works, and how Hashem decides which prayers to accept. In our limited space here, I’m stopping at noting that any theory that fit Rashi’s view would include the assumption that Hashem takes into account the righteousness and lineage of the person praying.

Three Examples of the Wickedness of Esav

I think many have noted that Rashi finds opportunities to see Esav as evil, even where the text doesn’t obviously indicate it. The three examples I review here combine to suggest an interesting perspective on the nature of evil in general, Esav’s in particular.

First, on 25;34, the text says that Esav denigrated the בכורה, the rights of the first-born. Rashi thinks it was the realization that those rights brought with them the obligation to serve Hashem (the first-born would have been the priests, if not for their participation in the Golden Calf). Being unwilling would have been bad enough, but he derided it. Strike one.

When Esav gets married at 40, 26;34, Rashi sees that as his conscious attempt to mimic his father’s life pattern. He compares it to a pig, which lies with its split hooves out, as if to show itself to be a kosher animal. Esav spent forty years frolicking, and then settled down at the age his father had, as if he and his father were similar.

Note the difference between wanting to be like his father and adopting external patterns of his father’s life. The first modeling oneself after a respected figure. Esav went for the look of a good person, not the actuality. Strike two.

Finally, 28;9, the verse tells us that Esav married Machalat the daughter of Yishmael. Rashi had previously said that Esav married her in reaction to Yitzchak’s asking Ya’akov not to marry a Canaanite. Here, he comments that Esav “added evil to his evil,” since he didn’t divorce his earlier wives.

The lesson is that we have to abandon evil, remove it from our lives, before we can make any strides to improvement. Esav’s wives’ idol worship, as we will see, was an active bother to his parents. Aware of his parents’ opinion of them, he cares enough to add a wife of the type they would approve, but he doesn’t take the prior necessary step, turning away from that which was wrong in his life.

Esav looks down on goodness, tries to make himself seem good not be good, and goes only as far as adding a good wife to his crew, unwilling to give up his previous, evil ones. That’s three strikes.

The External Pressure Against Obeying Hashem

In 26;5, Hashem tells Yitzchak that the oaths He had made to Avraham were a response to Avraham’s fulfilling all types of commandments, one of them being חקותי, my statutes. Rashi takes these terms in their halachic sense (based on the Gemara’s assumption that Avraham kept the whole Torah), which makes חקים those laws whose reasons aren’t immediately apparent.

But Rashi focuses less on the lack of reasons than on how the evil inclination and nations of the world use that to debate our adherence to those laws. Why shouldn’t we eat pig or wear shatnez, when we can’t see a reason not to?

The answer should be clear, that if Hashem, the Creator of the Universe (and, later, Redeemer and Lawgiver), commands us, the only reasonable response is to obey. But our evil inclinations, inside of us, and other nations, around us, argue that that’s silly, ill-considered, or relinquishes our autonomy. None of those claims holds water when confronted with Hashem’s Will, but it can be hard to hold to our views in the face of an internal and external onslaught.

That’s what Avraham was able to do in following the hukkim,

Dimming Yitzchak’s Eyes

The key physical fact of Ya’akov’s securing the blessings is that Yitzchak couldn’t see. Rashi to 27;1 offers three possible causes of that blindness: 1) The smoke from the alien worship of Esav’s wives got into his eyes, 2) The tears of the angels who witnessed his father binding him for sacrifice had fallen into his eyes, or 3) It was necessary to allow Ya’akov to receive the proper blessings.

Each option produces a different perspective of the blindness. For the first, he was a victim, damaged by Esav’s wives’ idolatry. For the second, he was either again a victim, or (I think more likely) his eyes’ interactions with a higher plane of existence (the angels’ tears, whatever that means) had robbed them of their power in this world. In that view, the damage of his blindness actually demonstrates his connection to a higher realm. Or, finally, he may have been a pure instrument of the Divine Will, rendering him blind so that history would follow its’ necessary course.

The Course of the Lives of the Righteous and the Wicked

In 27;29, Yitzchak blesses Ya’akov that ארריך ארור ומברכיך ברוך, those who curse you will be cursed and those who bless you will be blessed. Rashi notes that in Bamidbar 24;9, Bilam says the same about the Jewish people, but reverses the order.  He explains that the righteous start life with difficulty, and end with serenity, where evildoers do the opposite. Bilam assumed people meet those offering blessings first; for Yitzchak (and other righteous), it’s the opposite.

The casual assumption that righteousness is no guarantee of an easy or good life caught my attention. We often think that if we do what Hashem wants, we’ll get immediate good.  That might be true for the nation, but for individuals, Rashi thinks it’s not only not a certainty, it might even not be likely.  The righteous walk a sometimes or often difficult path, and have to do it with confidence in the ultimate outcome, not the immediate feedback we sometimes use as a gauge.

The birth and early life of Esav gave us opportunities to consider the nature and impact of evil. There was Rivkah’s lesser lineage and its effect on her prayers, Esav’s rejection of service of Hashem, working to fool others into thinking he was kosher or good, and failing to realize that he had to reject evil (in the form of his first wives) if he truly wanted to change. Beyond that, we saw that evil also works to convince us of the foolishness of following Hashem’s commands, and also often have better lives, superficially, than the righteous.

We can be righteous, but we have to make our way past many distractions and discouragements to do it. As Esav and the parsha show us.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.