They were born within minutes of each other, raised as Jews and learned Torah together from their father and grandfather. At an early age, the two little boys knew right from wrong. Nobody could detect anything unusual in either brother.
So, why did one brother stay on the path of his elders while the other embraced their worst enemies? And why did the one who strayed swear to kill the good sibling and his descendants?
The story of Esau and Jacob is as old as mankind. Free will allows man to change for better or worse. It allows the son of an evil man to embrace good, and enables the son of righteous parents to choose the opposite path.
The turning point for the two brothers was age 13. Today, that would have been their bar mitzvah. After a normal childhood, Jacob turned to the house of study and focused on Torah and G-d’s commandments. Esau abandoned the heritage of his parents and embraced idols.
The Talmud in Taanit states that the main element in the evil Jew is his choice to replace G-d with the handiwork of man. The prohibition of idol worship applies to all, but the act is most reprehensible in Jews. After all, what is Jewish history but G-d saving the Jewish people from the idolaters? And that’s where loyalty comes in: The gentile nations might be worshipping useless wood and stone, but at least they don’t abandon them. The Jewish people turned away from a merciful and all-powerful G-d to the false and lifeless.
Perhaps the starkest lesson of these times is the disloyalty of the leaders of Israel: How they abandon life-long positions at the drop of a hat for money or power. Remember Ariel Sharon, the so-called king of the Jews, father of Jewish settlement, war hero? Months after he swore not to uproot Jewish communities from the Gaza Strip or West Bank, he deemed settlement a mistake and threw thousands of people out of their homes. Gaza was taken over by Hamas, which has initiated countless wars since 2007.
Only a few years ago, Naftali Bennett was the head of the Jewish settlement council in Judea and Samaria and lobbied for Jewish rights in the land of the patriarchs. Today, as the first Israeli prime minister with a skullcap he echoes anti-Semites by saying that devout Jews wield too much power and that non-Orthodox movements from America must be groomed to take over. He allows Defense Minister Benny Ganz to veto a proposal for Jews, regardless of citizenship, to purchase land in the West Bank. Instead, Israel, more than 50 years after it conquered the territory, would maintain a Jordanian law that prevents any Jew from buying land. In the West, this would still be called anti-Semitism. In South Africa, it is called apartheid.
These sudden reversals have not surprised those inside Israeli politics. No less a critic than Yossi Sarid, the late parliamentarian who for decades battled Jewish tradition, had warned that Sharon would betray the settlement movement. Sharon, Sarid said, was obsessed with power and if need be would throw his longtime allies and financial backers under the bus. Those who know Bennett harbor similar views. They have seen a man who took his hi-tech fortune and bought leadership positions. When he couldn’t buy any more, he simply sold himself.
Rabbeinu Bachya Ben Asher ibn Halawa, who lived in the 13th and 14th centuries, has been regarded as the most distinguished of Jewish scholars from Spain. In his commentary to Ethics of the Fathers, the rabbi warns against falling for society’s idols. Those idols are not necessarily made of stone or wood. They include money, fame and power.
“He who places his name so that he becomes celebrated in the land, so that he will be called rabbi or leader, G-d will eliminate him and he will not have any name on the face of the earth,” Rabbeinu Bachya said.
Often, it is hard to see the evil that lurks in a person. Esau did Issac proud when he killed Nimrod, the despot who threw Abraham into the burning pit for refusing to kneel. Rivka, Esau’s mother, knew better. Her son had not sought to avenge the persecution of his grandfather. He merely wanted Nimrod’s coat, taken from Adam and seen as the key to superhuman strength. With this garment, Esau could rule the world.
Moreover, Rivka understood what Esau really thought of his father. Although he made a show of piety, Esau was the paragon of hypocrisy. He raped and pillaged at will. He married the daughters of Canaan, which G-d forbade, and his wives practiced idolatry in the apartment next to their father-in-law. Soon, Issac became blind from the constant smoke that poured out of the altars. But he remained committed to his ungrateful son: Perhaps divine blessings would move Esau to follow the path of Abraham.
Esau, however, was determined to stay the course even as he sought blessings from Issac. And that, the sages say, is another characteristic of evil people: They want it all and they want it now. Esau had sold his birthright to Jacob, but when it came time for Issac’s blessings, he insisted that he was still number one. Esau thought he could win his father over with soothing words. His biggest fear was that Issac would do to him what Noah had done to his son Shem — curse him and relegate him to serve his brothers.
What made Jacob righteous? It was not his intelligence, charisma, charm or muscles. Jacob merely chose to follow G-d, observe the commandments and do good to his fellow man. And for this, Jacob lowered his ego, spent his days and nights learning Torah while Esau made the headlines as the dashing gladiator.
Esau and Jacob represent the war between good and evil. They cannot coexist: When the Jewish people stray from G-d, Esau takes over. When the Jews return to G-d, Esau disappears. The legacies of both men live on. Jacob has remained the father of the Jewish people while Esau and his evil mutated into Amalek, Edom, Rome and the Western nations that followed.
Although he was blind, Issac realized that his two sons could never reconcile. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, the 18th Century Hassidic master, said Issac’s main blessing to Jacob was that he merit the coming of the Messiah — the end game in history. To Esau, the rabbi added, Issac gave a blessing that best suited his behavior.
“On your sword, you shall live.”