“And the youths grew up, and Esau was a man who understood hunting, a man of the field, whereas Jacob was an innocent man, dwelling in tents. [Genesis. 25:27]”
How can two people who come from the same mother and father be so different?
The difference between Issac and Ishmael can be explained: Issac came from the righteous patriarch Abraham. Ishmael came from the Egyptian prince.
But Jacob and Esau were born of the same mother and father. They were raised in the same home, with love and Torah. For the first 12 years of their lives, they were indistinguishable.
So, then how do you explain what Shlomo Ben Yitzhaki, or Rashi, says:
“As long as they were small, they were not recognizable through their deeds. And no one scrutinized them to determine their character. As soon as they reached 13, one went to the houses of study and the other to idol worship.” Rashi on Genesis 25:27]
Most experts agree that 13 is a crucial age regardless of sex. Florencia Segura, a prominent American pediatrician, says the onset of puberty can change thinking. Many 13-year-old think they are immune to failure and feel free to challenge family and school. They believe they are the center of attention. Suddenly, there are mood swings, brought on by hormones. They begin to experiment. Their friends are more important than family.
“They also start to form an identity at this age as they experiment with hobbies, activities, clothes, hairstyles, and music,” Segura says. “They try on different identities to see what fits.”
At that point, environment is crucial. Many 13-year-old begin to get in trouble with authorities, particularly the police. Others want to drown their doubts in drugs, alcohol and sex. The rollercoaster has taken off.
Jacob’s choice was the world of Torah. He sought to emulate the ways of the righteous of his generation, particularly that of his grandfather Abraham. He would frequent the tents of his father, grandfather and others, absorbing their often-incomprehensible words while growing comfortable with the cadence of their speech. Slowly, Jacob grasped the meaning of key terms and concepts. The road was open.
This marked the path of the sages throughout Jewish history. Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Cook, later the first chief rabbi of the British mandate of Palestine, was the oldest of eight children in a village that today is Latvia. Born in 1865, he was bright, inquisitive and sat close to the adults as they discussed Torah and current events. At around 13, his parents sent him to study in Lutzin, known as a town of scholars, headed by Rabbi Eliezer Don-Yehya.
A little boy far from home is no pleasure. Avraham pined for the love and warmth of his mother. Sometimes, at nights, he would weep in bed. But every morning, he rose to pray and open the Talmud. Soon, the word was out in Lutzin: There’s new kid in town and he is special.
One of the most fascinating things about Avraham Yitzhak was how he handled difficult questions from his teachers. He acknowledged that he had no answers. But then he added, “Teach me understanding. What is the intention of this question? Where is the answer.” And pupil and teacher would search for the answer.
The search for knowledge was that of truth. Avraham Yitzhak seemed to never leave the study hall. As the snowstorms raged, he and his colleague learned Torah most of the night until overcome by sleep.
Then, there’s Esau. Dr. Segura would find him familiar — a muscular, curious adolescent who wants to conquer the world. And he did: He fought and killed Nimrod, the emperor of the world and nemesis of Abraham. He amassed wives and concubines to spawn a huge family and later tribes. He was a master of many trades — hunting, trading, marketing and, the most exciting of all, war.
It is likely that Esau was far too busy to come home to see Jacob. The older brother wouldn’t step foot in the study hall. After all, what did he need to learn when he had everything. As Paul Simon used to sing, “He had everything, money, grace and style.”
And Isaac loved Esau because [his] game was in his mouth, but Rebecca loved Jacob. [Genesis. 25:28]
Every parent would love Jacob. But why did Issac love Esau? Rashi presents several options. One was he brought the venison “into Jacob’s mouth.” Issac is eating his usual boring avocado sandwich and here comes Esau with a steak. Another option: Esau the master salesman knew how to talk to his patriarch father. The son would fabricate questions in Jewish law to impress daddy.
At what point did Esau begin to resent and then hate his simple and unknown brother? It was when somebody — anybody — said to Esau, “Why can’t you be like Jacob and keep the Sabbath or learn Torah or just simply shut up?
Suddenly, Esau felt the gnawing of doubt. Weren’t his achievements sufficient? Wasn’t he the one who was the model of success? How does Jewish observance compare to what he did to Nimrod?
Esau grew obsessive over his younger brother. He took on numerous wives and concubines to build tribes that would conquer the world. For a while, his progeny outnumbered those of Jacob. The closest to his heart was his grandson Amalek, who shared Esau’s hatred for Jacob. And from Esau would come Edom, also known in the Talmud as Rome.
The Zohar says there would be a “small Rome” and a “large Rome.” They would rule the world for more than 2,000 years. They would make world wars, drop atomic bombs on cities, launch crusades, massacre those different. But most important they would plan day and night to destroy Jacob’s children, regardless of the cost, including self-destruction.
But the same Zohar [Parshat Pinchas] also sees an end to the suffering. The small Rome would be removed by Messiah, son of Joseph. The large Rome would be eliminated by Messiah, son of David. These two men would correspond to the angels Gabriel and Michael — sent by G-d to complete the mission.
And then the entire world will be free to choose Jacob’s way. A way of simplicity, honesty and total faith in G-d. It may not make the newspapers — but all will know of it.