Lazer Gurkow

The Human Struggle

Life is a long human struggle. Animals don’t struggle. For them, life is simple. They have only one objective. To live and perpetuate their kind. Humans have an entire wrestling match. To be human is to struggle.  To be human is to strive for kindness, compassion, devotion, honesty, justice, loyalty, and all the other virtues that make life worth living. But to be human is also to plagued by greed, lust, trauma, insecurity, etc. The human struggle is to choose right over wrong, good over bad, and just over unjust.

That this is the true experience of every human is frightening. It means that we all have an inner schism, a split personality. On some level, we each pine for rectitude and goodness, and on another level we each have an appetite for indulgence and excess. Is this human struggle normal?

This is precisely the question that plagued the matriarch, Rebekah. After 20 years of marriage, she finally conceived. But the baby in her womb was constantly struggling. When she passed a house of monotheism and Torah, she felt the baby grow excited and kick. When she strolled by a pagan temple, she felt the baby kick and grow excited as well. This worried her. Will this one child be pulled in both directions? Will my poor child have a split personality and be plagued by this human struggle?

She consulted the prophet, who told her not to worry. You don’t have only one child. You have been blessed with two children. One is passionate about holiness, nobility, and G-d. The other is passionate about theft, murder, and dalliances of the heart. She was finally comforted. This is not one child. These are two children.

It is nice to know that she was comforted, but what about us? We are each only one person, and we are plagued with both drives. Is this human struggle normal? Are we normal?

Two Souls
The answer is that we are perfectly normal because we too are not just one. We eave have two souls. If we had just one soul, we could justifiably be upset over our split personality. Who am I, Jacob or Esau? But the truth is that we have two souls. A Jacob soul who wants to sit in the sacred tents of Torah study, and an Esau soul who wants to live in the fast lane. We are a tennis court, and the two players are the two souls within us.

What is our role? We are the referees. We dictate the pace of the game, and we decide who shall win. Although G-d gave us two souls, He never removed our freedom of choice. At any point we can choose to run with Jacob or with Esau. We are twins and we can choose either one at any time.

We are in the driver’s seat even if it doesn’t always feel that way. Sometimes we feel as if we are tossed about on storms of whim. But unlike true storms, we can choose to stop the storm at any point. All it takes is a firm decision and the stubborn consistency to see it through.

Two Worlds
The story I told about Rebekah, has two versions. I related the first version—she worried that her child was drawn to holiness and to paganism.  There is another version. She was in constant pain because the children in her womb were constantly fighting. What were they fighting over? Jacob wanted this world and the world to come, but so did Esau. Unable to understand the meaning of this constant pain, she consulted the prophet, who explained that she had two children fighting over their inheritance.

This version seems filled with questions. If the twins were Jacob and Esau, why were they fighting? The split seems perfectly logical. Jacob, the holy twin, has no need for this crass corporeal world. He should be happy with the world to come—the Heavenly G-dly world. Esau, the villainous twin, should have no interest in the world to come. He should be content with this world. Why were they fighting?

The answer is that Jacob doesn’t merely care to live a holy life in a holy environment. He wants to bring holiness to the crass unholy environment of this world. Although Jacob doesn’t covet gold and diamonds for the same reason Esau covets them, he still wants them. Jacob wants to use them for their creator’s intended purpose—to build the Temple and to adorn the priestly vestments.

The same is true for each of us. When we are drawn to the pleasures of life, it is not just our Esau soul that wants it. It is also our Jacob soul. They just want it for different reasons. Our Esau soul wants these things to indulge to excess. To swim in a pool of worldly pleasure. Our Jacob soul wants these things so that they could be put to use for holy purpose.

Every item in the world can be used for a holy purpose and for an indulgent one. The choice before us is not whether to engage or refrain from these things. Both our souls drive us to engage. To use them. To make them an important part of our lives. But for different reasons. The decision we need to make is not whether to use them but what to use them for.

When you sit down to eat, are you excited because you are about to enjoy your favourite dish or because you are about to chant a blessing and be nourished? I remember a teacher in my sixth grade who told us that he trained himself to eat everything on his plate whether he liked it or not. Over time, he told us, he reprogrammed his brain. Rather than seeing a delicious dish, he only saw a nourishing meal. He simply ignored the taste and ate the food irrespective of flavor. He never overindulged. He only ate as much as needed. This is a Jacob way to eat.

The same applies to time. When we have thirty minutes to spare, the question before us is not whether to use it or not. The question is what to use it for. The Esau soul wants us to use it for something that we enjoy and will benefit us. The Jacob soul wants us to use it for a purpose that G-d would endorse.

This is why Rebekah’s twins fought for both worlds. Jacob wanted this world so he could refine it, improve it, and uplift it. Esau wanted the higher world so he could leverage its powers and energies for more pleasure in this world.

The Two Versions
We can now see that the two versions of the story about the twins don’t conflict with each other. They actually enhance each other. The first version was simplistic. Jacob wanted the house of Torah; Esau wanted the house of paganism. The second version expanded the story’s horizons and demonstrated that the twins were more sophisticated than we thought.

They were not split down the middle each wanting their own thing. They both wanted the same thing but for different reasons. This informs our choices too. Our choices are not simple—engage with the world or avoid it. Our choices are sophisticated. View every encounter with life as an encounter with G-d or see it as an encounter with the crassest elements of yourself.

Indeed, every aspect of life, from the greatest pleasures to the harshest traumas, can be utilized as an encounter with G-d. Hiding behind each of these events, is a majestic orchestrator Who brings people together in time and space. Each encounter is meant to be majestic. Each moment can be an achievement. Each endeavour can be transcendental. It can build an everlasting edifice of holiness, inspiration, and beauty.

If only we let it be. If only we make the Jacob choice.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at