Ari Sacher
Ari Sacher

“Nature, Nurture, and Redemption” Parashat Toledot 5778

It’s not rocket science. Rivka was pregnant with twins, Rivka was pregnant with twins, Rivka was pregnant with twins. Why must the Torah repeat this fact three times?

Rivka and Yitzchak have difficulty conceiving but eventually Hashem hears their prayers and Rivka becomes pregnant. The Torah tells us [Bereishit 25:22] “The children struggled within her”. The word “children” – “banim” – is in the plural, meaning that she was carrying twins, possibly more. Rivka, alarmed by her unnaturally “struggling” children, goes to a prophet to understand what is going on in her womb. She is told [Bereishit 25:23] “Two nations are in your womb and two kingdoms will separate from within you”. “Two nations” – sounds like twins. Didn’t she already know this? Finally, in the very next verse we are told [Bereishit 25:24] “Her days to give birth were completed, and behold, there were twins in her womb”. Wasn’t she just told that there were “two nations in her womb”? Even more bizarre is the use of the word “behold”. The Rashbam[1] explains that the word “behold” indicates that something unexpected has occurred. What is so unexpected here? Rivka knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that she was having twins.

We’ll address these questions by merging explanations from a few commentators, so hold on to your hats. Soon after Rivka becomes pregnant, it becomes obvious that she is carrying twins. She knows this after consulting with other women who had carried twins: she was larger than normal, she had excessive weight gain, and she had horrific morning sickness. Her twins, however, seemed to possessed by the forces of Satan, as they chased each other around the womb, each vying for dominance. When she asked other women who had borne twins if they had also suffered from this insanity[2] and she was given a resounding “no”, she went to seek spiritual help. When the prophet tells Rivka that she is carrying twins in her womb and that they will separate from birth to two opposite poles, she is being given critical information[3]: Rivka was heretofore convinced that both of her twins will not survive her pregnancy. One of them will certainly kill the other in utero. The prophet tells her otherwise: not only will both twins survive the pregnancy, they will thrive.

When the babies exit the womb[4], something completely unexpected occurs. Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch asserts that Esav and Yaakov were identical twins. The only difference between the two babies was that Esav was more physically mature than Yaakov and he had more hair. Otherwise, they were like two peas in a pod[5]. Why was this so unexpected? As Rivka had seen with her own eyes the fetuses in her womb locked in battle, and she had heard with her own ears that the two children would be diametrically opposed, it was indeed unexpected that they would share the same DNA. Rav Hirsch’s explanation makes good sense. For one thing, it explains how a blind Yitzchak could have mistaken Esav for Yaakov[6]. It also explains King David’s genetic structure: Young David is described as [Samuel I 16:12] “ruddy, with beautiful eyes, and handsome appearance”. While rivers of ink have been spilled in comparing and contrasting King David to Esav, Rav Hirsch would assert that David inherited his red hair from his ancestor, Yaakov.

The fact that Yaakov and Esav were identical twins can teach us a critical lesson about nature, nurture, and redemption. The Midrash in Bereishit Raba teaches that as Esav, explicitly mentioned as having red hair, was a murderer, this means that red hair is an indicator of a person who spills blood. And so when the prophet Samuel went to anoint David as king and he saw that David had red hair, he was overcome with fear, fearing that David might be a murderer. Hashem reassured Samuel by having him look at David’s “beautiful eyes”. This was meant to teach Samuel that there was a seminal difference between Esav and David: Esav murdered impulsively, whereas David would kill a person only by sentence of a court[7]. So while the gene that is responsible for red hair is also apparently responsible for bloodlust, every redhead has the ability, nay, the responsibility, to channel this nature in positive ways. The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [156a] notes that a person born under the planet Mars will be a shedder of blood. Rav Ashi notes that he will be either a surgeon, a thief, a slaughterer, or a circumciser. Nature gives us certain inborn tendencies, but we are judged for the direction that we take our tendencies. We can use our powers for good or for evil.

The above Midrash pits Esav against David. The Midrash’s point becomes even stronger if we pit Esav against Yaakov. Esav and Yaakov were born with identical gene structure. In modern psychological terms, we could say that they had the same “nature”. As the twins matured, they were brought up identically and treated identically. In modern psychological terms, we could say that they had the same “nurture”. Indeed, Rav Hirsch takes Yitzchak and Rivka to task for this. King Solomon tells us in the Book of Proverbs [22:6] “Educate a child according to his own way.” There is no “proper” way to raise a child. Each child has his own needs, his own strengths and his own weaknesses. Some children require the carrot and other require the stick. No two children should be raised in precisely the same way. Rav Hirsch asserts that had Yitzchak and Rivka raised Esav differently, they could have prevented him from becoming the monster that he eventually became. This raises a question: if Yitzchak and Yaakov were identical in every way, sharing the same nature and the same nurture, how was it that Esav became the symbol of evil while Yaakov became a “Chariot of the Divine Presence”[8]? The answer has to do with a third factor responsible for a person’s actions: his capability to redeem himself. Judaism posits that a human has the capability not only to overcome his initial conditions, but to overcome the entire trajectory of his life, as well. This is the secret freedom of choice, which the Rambam equates with man’s creation [Bereishit 1:27] “in the Image of Hashem”. This capability is not a function of nature or nurture or of some chemical reaction within our brains. It is a supernatural gift from Hashem. Yaakov chose to use it. Esav, however, did not choose wisely.

In “Redemption and the Power of Man[9]”, Rav Meir Soloveichik analyses the differences between the Jewish and Christian understanding of redemption. In short, Christians believe that redemption is a gift given to undeserving humans by a gracious G-d, while Jews believe that man has the power to earn his own redemption. He can lift himself out of whatever morass he may find himself and reach unimaginable heights. For this reason, the Mashiach has such a lurid lineage, including Lot’s incestuous relationship with his daughters, Tamar and Yehuda, and David and Batsheva. The lineage of the Mashiach teaches us that each of us has the G-d-given ability to rise above his past.

The Mashiach will reinstate the Davidic Dynasty, and as the gene for red hair is dominant, will very likely have red hair[10]. He will have overcome his own natural tendencies in order to assume the mantle of the redeemer of Am Yisrael. And by succeeding, he will show us that our own redemption is really in our own hands.


Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Freida.

[1] In previous shiurim we attributed this innovation to Rav Baruch HaLevi Epstein, known as the “Torah Temima”. The Rashbam preceded Rav Epstein by about 800 years, so we’re going to give him the credit.

[2] See the Ibn Ezra ad loc.

[3] See the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh ad loc.

[4] This is how Rav David Kimchi, the Radak, interprets the words “Her days to give birth were completed”.

[5] Azila Talit Reisenberger suggests that the only way that Yaakov could be born [Bereishit 25:26] “holding Esav’s heel” is if they shared the same amniotic sack, meaning that they were identical twins.

[6] In an earlier shiur [Toledot 5752] we posited that Yitzchak knew that he was blessing Yaakov, who was wearing sheepskin on his hands to prove a point. The Torah can be explained in 70 different ways…

[7] The Midrash paints David as a great Sage who adjudicated on the Sanhedrin.

[8] See Tanya Chapter 34.

[9] Azure, Winter 5764 / 2004

[10] Donald Trump’s red hair comes from a bottle. Its natural colour is brown.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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