The Esav inside of us

 Parashat Toledot

November 20, 2020

5 Kislev 5781

Parashat Toledot introduces the momentous narrative of Yaakov’s life. It is Yaakov who becomes Yisrael, the patriarch of the family and the nation of 12 tribes. The parasha includes four events. Together, they form currents that flow deeply in our collective identity as the Jewish people. First, Rivka confronts God during her painful pregnancy. She had been hoping to give birth, but her pregnancy was excruciating. The Torah describes Rivka approaching God with the verb, lidrosh, the same word as, derasha. Her prayer was a challenge, an inquiry, an exploration and investigation of purpose and meaning. Rivka asks God: “If this is what I must endure, why did I ever ask to become pregnant in the first place?” (Rashi) “Why should my pregnancy be so difficult?” (Ibn Ezra) “Is this the purpose of my life, to suffer so greatly? I’d rather not have been born!” (Ramban) “Why must I suffer? What is the purpose of this experience? What does it mean for me?” These existential questions are embedded deeply in our cultural sensibilities. We recognize these as profoundly Jewish questions.

The twins are both similar and radically different. They struggled in the womb. The rabbis explain that when Rivka passed an idolatrous temple, Esav kicked in utero to come out into that world. When she passed a yeshiva, Yaakov strained to be born. Rashi adds the midrash from Yalkut Shimoni, that they contended with each other about inheriting rewards in this world and the world to come. Rabbi Yosef ben Yitzchak Bechor Shor, 12th century France, explains the verb, hitrotzetzu to mean, “They were bending and breaking each other, like a broken reed, kane ratzutz.” Even before the boys were born, each brother already had an experience of brokenness embossed in their limbic memory of birth. Since this narrative begins, literally, in utero, it is possible that the Torah is teaching us that we all have parts of Esav and Yaakov inside of us. More on this point presently.

The second episode of the parasha recounts Yitzchak’s career redigging his father’s wells. The shepherds of Avimelech, his competitor for pasture and water, had been filling in those wells. This resonates with a second deeply Jewish theme: how to relate to the wellsprings from our past. What is our relationship to the wells of our ancestors? Don’t we have to find our own water sources, our own sources of inspiration and nourishment? Yet, without drinking from the wells of the past, how can we interpret the demands of the hour, in today’s world? 

The parasha concludes, however, with two of the most dramatic narratives of Sefer Bereshit: First Yaakov extorts the bechora, the birthright, from his famished older brother, Esav, with a pot of lentil soup. Then, years later, he participates with his mother, Rivka, in a plan to deceive his blind father and receive the final blessing before his father’s death, instead of allowing Esav to receive that blessing as the first born. These episodes contain the most profound tensions at the heart of Jewish identity. Esav lacks the vision and imagination of Yaakov, whereas Yaakov lacks the the strength and knowledge of the world that Esav possesses. Yaakov is a dreamer; Esav, a hunter. The legacy of Avraham, of worldliness and compassion, cosmopolitan sophistication and deep, intuitive knowledge of God, respect for other cultures and uncompromised commitment to his own family, is embodied in the symbiosis between these twins, Esav and Yaakov. 

Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, the first Gerer Rebbe, described this interpretation in the Sefat Emet through the lens of the mystical tradition (I have translated this source to convey its message clearly, and not literally word for word):

Regarding the relationship between Yaakov and Esav, the Torah says, “Esav was a man who knew how to hunt, a man of the field, whereas Yaakov sat in the tents.” (Bereshit 25:27) The holy Zohar quotes a verse that sheds light on this description of the brothers: “Put your external affairs in order, Get ready what you have in the field, Then build yourself a home.” (Mishle 24:27) Esav represents the potential to establish a firm foundation as a “man of the field,” and would have built that foundation to support Yaakov, since Yaakov had knowledge essentially of the neshama, the soul. The world of “the field” comes into contact with experiences of alienation (“maga’ nochri”), and requires processes of continuous spiritual smelting (“berur hahitarvut”), whereas the world of the neshama is pure and unadulterated, grounded and balanced. This is parallel to life in the Garden of Eden. Before the sin, humanity lived in the Garden, a disembodied, spiritual existence. Afterwards, humanity was expelled to work the earth, a physically embodied existence. From that moment on, the six days of creation, i.e., the six days of the week, are dedicated to the “tikkun haguf,” the re-alignment of our physical existence….Yaakov, on the other hand, represents an existence without the impurities and pain of an embodied, physical existence, the sense of timeless being on Shabbat….However, Esav became corrupted. Once that happened, Yaakov had to leave the holy land and navigate the world of external physicality, in order to align the worlds of the physical and the spiritual, on his own. As a result, Yaakov inherited Esav’s blessing of necessity….For in truth, human beings all have inside of them a part of heaven and a part of earth, the soul and the body. Yaakov was essentially neshama, and only accidentally also physical. That is why Yitzchak blessed Yaakov with the phrase, “I will give you from the dews of heaven and the fat of the earth,” whereas the wording to Esav is reversed: “I will bless you with the fat of the earth and the dew of Heaven.”

The Sefat Emet goes on to describe the fragrant clothing of Esav that Rivka placed on Yaakov to deceive Yitzchak. Those garments, taught the rabbis, came from the first human being in the Garden of Eden. They were acquired by the cruel hunter, Nimrod, then inherited by Esav, and now placed on Yaakov. The garments were endowed with the fragrance of blessing that emerged from the Garden in the rivers that flowed from it. They carried with them the same fragrance of sacrifices ascending to heaven. 

This reading of the narrative through the lens of the mystical tradition does not see a drama of deceit. This is not a tale of two contentious siblings. The mystical reading of these events interprets the interplay of Esav and Yaakov from the perspective of a cosmic realignment of all that became corrupt in God’s world. When Yaakov donned those clothes, he was not disguised as Esav, tricking his father. He became Esav. He was transformed into an Esav/Yaakov, body and soul, guf and neshama. This was not yet an integrated being, however. Esav/Yaakov was a binary, fractious, alienated being, rife with inner conflict. With the appropriation of those garments, a cosmic rift was starting to heal, a tikkun without which the world would not survive. But the tikkun would require wrestling and struggle.

Esav/Yaakov embodies the divine hopes and disappointments for humanity that God had experienced ever since creation. In Avraham, God had finally discovered the human being capable of justice and compassion, dignity and courage, humility and power. When God fell in love with Avraham, God’s love for the humanity God had created was rekindled. Now, two generations later, humanity has the potential to overcome the arrogance of idolatry, the cruelty of avarice, and the destructive, hateful, unbridled power of the fear of diversity. From this perspective, the rabbinic tradition of Esav’s corruption speaks with haunting relevance to our world. Esav was to inherit this world, and develop and protect it as a foundation for the world to come, a redeemed future. He lacked the quality of gevurah, of inner discipline and commitment, however, to build this world as a transition to the next, as a bridge to a perfected, balanced, harmonious garden. Instead, Esav, taught the rabbis, became intoxicated with his own prowess and power. He committed murder. He worshipped idols. Midrash Rabbah teaches that Esav kidnapped and raped married women until the age of forty. Esav is, tragically, the part of us that cannot delay gratification, cannot project an image of the future and live for that possibility, cannot see beyond the impulsivity of immediate needs: In that moment Esav ate and drank and got up and walked off and denigrated his birthright. (Bereshit 25:34) Just as the first human beings were exiled from Eden, the entire generation of the flood destroyed, and the entire population of the world dispersed from the tower of Babel, the hope for the future of the world became transfused into Esav/Yaakov. With Yaakov’s exile from home, he embodied humanity’s struggle with itself. Will people emerge as just, or corrupt? Defenders of truth, or mendacious? Compassionate or cruel? Righteous, or entitled. Altruistic or avaricious? Ultimately, rabbinic traditions about Esav teach us that without the spiritual strength to resist the greed and hunger for power, humanity will tragically squander all of the blessings God can bestow upon us. At this moment in the sacred history of the Jewish people, it remains to be seen whether or not Yaakov will be able to wrestle with the Esav within.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dov

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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