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It seems that in almost every moment of our lives we are caught between two choices: the easier or more selfish choice and something a bit harder, a selfless choice. Sometimes safek (doubt) blurs the lines between the two, but often, if we tap into emunah (faith) and our gut, we know which is the one for us. Every action affects every other action. The fact that it takes so long to break a habit shows that every single action has ramifications beyond it. That’s why it says in Pirkei Avot, the reward for a mitzvah is a mitzvah1, because if doing good begets doing good, one can take action to stay in perpetual goodness, or God forbid, struggle steeped in the opposite. As we covered last week, too much chesed (kindness) without balancing it with gevurah (judgement) to reach a state of tiferet (harmony) is also not healthy. And so the struggle between chesed and gevurah is within us at all times. 

The story of Yakov and Esav puts one side far to one corner and the other far to the other, but since one represents the yetzer tov (good inclination and spirituality) and the other the yetzer hara (evil inclination and materialism), and because both exist within us, it makes it that much tougher to see them clearly. Even with Yitzchak, their father, we see that he wanted to give the blessings to Esav, because when something is so close to you, it’s hard to see it clearly. 

Even in my own life, I struggle to decipher what is best at any moment. Do I continue to learn Torah, exist in the space of spirituality, and write insights for these Dvar? Or do I put some more of my time into materialism, and work, since that is a reality of the physical world we exist in? Do I say yes to everything someone asks of me, or do I set a boundary so I can help as much as I can, but not at the expense of things I need to take care of for myself and my children? Do I take more time to heal a broken heart, or do I jump back into being vulnerable again, risking a break once again?

There’s a Native American parable, Tsalagi Tale, that goes a little something like this:

A Cherokee elder was teaching his young grandson about life.

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight, and it is between two wolves. One is evil- he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, self-doubt and ego.

The other is good- he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.
This same fight is going on inside you—and inside every other person, too.”

The boy thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather,
“Which wolf will win?”

The elder simply replied,
“The one you feed.”

It’s written in Bereishit, “Sin crouches at the door, ready to pounce.”2 And in the Talmud, “If you desire to, you can gain the victory over it”3 What we learn from this parashah of Toldot is that the fighting within Rivkah’s womb is the struggle between two worlds, one material and one spiritual. This is represented by the sons, Yakov, representing holiness and spirituality. We learn that when Rivkah walked by a place of worship and learning, Yakov would push to get out of her womb. And on the other hand we have Esav, who would push when Rivkah passed a place of idol worship, representing the other side, the material side that opposes holiness and spirituality. This manifests into the struggle between Israel and Edom, but it is also meant to represent each person’s struggle within themselves.

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר ה’ לָ֗הּ שְׁנֵ֤י (גיים) [גוֹיִם֙] בְּבִטְנֵ֔ךְ וּשְׁנֵ֣י לְאֻמִּ֔ים מִמֵּעַ֖יִךְ יִפָּרֵ֑דוּ וּלְאֹם֙ מִלְאֹ֣ם יֶֽאֱמָ֔ץ וְרַ֖ב יַעֲבֹ֥ד צָעִֽיר
and the LORD answered her, “Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.”4

The Gur Aryeh teaches that this embryonic Yakov/Esav struggle was not influenced by their personal good and evil inclinations, because those inclinations are not present before birth. Rather Yakov and Esav represented cosmic forces in creation, forces that transcended the normal cause of personality development. We see in this week’s reading the fate of the struggle has already been decided, as it’s written, “The older will serve the younger.” Rashi expounds on this, saying that they will never be equally great at the same time: “the ascent of one would result in the descent of the other.” As it says in Ezekiel, “O mortal, because Tyre gloated over Jerusalem, Aha! The gateway of the peoples is broken, it has become mine; I shall be filled, now that it is laid in ruins”5 As the Gemara expounds, Tyre (colonised by Esau) became full (powerful) only through the ruin of Jerusalem.6 

R’ Y. Nachshoni writes;

Edom symbolizes the wicked kingdom, which comprises all the forces of evil from time immemorial, which has always clashed with the spiritual world of Israel in different ways and forms. The ancient nucleus of this confrontation appears in the struggle between the two sons even before they are born. The commentators demonstrate a growth from this nucleus throughout all stages of Jewish history. Sefer Chassidim 833 says that Hashem deliberately implanted hatred between the two even while they were still in the womb. Hashem wanted this hostility to serve as an iron curtain between Yakov and Esav.7

Abarbanel discusses historical details of warfare between Yakov (Israel) and Esav (Edom), teaching that there were kings in Edom prior to the Jews actually becoming a nation. But King David put his own officers over Edom to ensure their descent. And in the time of the second Beit HaMikdash (Second Holy Temple), Hyrcanos, the Jewish high priest (and Maccabe) of the 2nd century BCE, defeated Edom and forced them to convert. Chazal (Our Sages) refer to our exile at the hands of the Romans as “the exile of Edom,” because it is after this exile that the third and final Beit HaMikdash and Moshiach will be revealed. 

Chizkuni points out that they are fighting for separation from one another already in Rivkah’s womb. Rashi expounds, “one wishes wickedness to prevail on earth, the other righteousness.” Implying that at this point in time the outcome of who would prevail in this struggle was not yet known. It would only become clear when the two children’s vocational choices had been made, one a hunter and idolator, the other a philosopher and focused on Godliness, making study his primary occupation. It says in Likutey Moharan that by strengthening our fate we defeat the traits that correspond to idolatry (i.e. haughtiness, anger, and misplaced faith). But when we strengthen true emunah, we weaken and defeat these false faiths of the sitra achra (other side). Rebbe Nachman teaches that Rashi’s comments apply to the power of imagination as well, as opposed to our intellectual wisdom. Only when we subdue such illusory thoughts do we attain and strengthen true wisdom.8 

We learn that Yakov was grasping Esav’s heel and so he was named Yakov. Yakov (יעקב) and heel (עקב) share the same root, and we learn from this that just as in the womb, where Yakov grasped Esav’s heel, so too in life, he would never let him be victorious and trap the soul waiting for rectification. With emunah and hishtadlut (action), Yakov, and indeed all of us, will remove souls from the grip of the other side, the side of doubt and faithlessness. When Yakov’s name changes and becomes Yisrael, it’s an indication of revelation and an indication that eventually all souls will be elevated to the highest level.9 

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak (the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe) teaches that “all the people on the face of the earth must know that our bodies have been sent into exile and servitude of foreign rules, but our souls have not been exiled or enslaved.”10 The only part holding our souls back is our bodies, but only if we serve our bodies, rather than having our bodies serve our souls. 

This is even seen within our two inclinations and the one’s eventual servitude to the other. King David composed truths with a harp. When he wrote, “For He will give command of His angels to you, to look after you wherever you will go,”11 he meant for us to understand that the yetzer hara (evil inclination) is waiting for each of us, born before we even come out of the womb, but Hashem, if we tap into the truth, will protect us from it. This is because the yetzer tov (good inclination) is absolute truth, while the yetzer (root of the word is “to create”) hara, is constantly trying to create needs that take us away from good and truth. If a person puts all his efforts towards truth, with a constant return to the spiritual and adherence to the Covenant of Avraham, then the Yetzer Hara starts to submit to the Yetzer Tov, bringing more and more good inclination. As it’s said, one ascends as the other descends. And in this way, both of them (the good and bad angels) are able to join together to guard the person from doing bad wherever the person is. This is the meaning of the verse, “He will give command of His angels to you, to look after you wherever you will go.” This is to say, when strengthening the good over the bad, in the most true and pure way, even the bad angel, against its will and purpose, has to say “Amen”. 

The ramifications of faithlessness and falsehoods have been seen throughout history, as Joseph B. Soloveitchik writes in The Lonely Man of Faith: “The Biblical account of the original sin is the story of man of faith who realizes suddenly that faith can be utilized for the acquisition of majesty and glory and who, instead of fostering a covenantal community, prefers to organize a political utilitarian community exploiting the sincerity and unqualified commitment of the crowd for non-covenantal, worldly purposes. The history of organized religion is replete with instances of desecration of the covenant.”12

I used to listen to this one album that I loved, “The Doors in Concert.” Jim Morrison was a powerful front man, and two things he said stuck with me, sort of reminding me of Esav. One moment he kept screaming to the audience, “Petition the lord with prayer!? You can’t petition the lord with prayer!!!” as they cheered on to the sentiment. Another point of the show, he once again stopped and said, “I don’t know what’s gonna happen man, but I wanna have my kicks before the whole &*$#house goes up in flames…”13

Joey Rosenfeld has a great take on the verse in Sefer Yirmiyahu that reads, “Do not weep for the dead, And do not lament for him; Rather, weep for the one who is moving towards it..”14 In Bereishit Rabbah it explains this in regards to the confrontation between Esav and Yakov, who represent the archetypal two relationships that human beings can have with time.15 Esav with his worldly reality stuck within the conception of temporality which is a being towards death that every moment one is alive is another iteration of the simple truth of a human being thrown into this world where time calls to mind their imminent and inevitable mortality.16

Yakov, on the other hand, represents a new, redeemed way of confronting time and the capacity to transcend the confinement of time, to find within time itself a deep level of experience and possibility that without time, we would have no capacity to experience. Yakov doesn’t see each moment as being a movement, a slow march or an infinite repetition or iterations marching towards death, but rather sees that within time there is the space that offers the possibility of being present, of elevating moments and of redemption at any moment. And knowing that time is full of struggles and ups and downs, but specifically within those broken, fallen states, one can embrace, transcend, and find hidden blessings that wouldn’t be possible without the darkness in the negative side of this experience. 

Chazal say Yakov made a lentil dish, while Esav is out chasing vices, because everything he sees brings to mind his own demise, which he is reminded of when his grandfather Avraham dies. Meanwhile, Yakov is making lentils to honor and commemorate the passing of his grandfather. Chazal say that as Yakov is making this dish, Esav comes in from the field and asks, “What is the purpose of the dish?” And Yakov answers, “our grandfather has passed away.” And Esav replies, “even that Zaken (righteous old individual), he too suffers from judgment and will fall under death and mortality?” Yakov responds, yes, and Esav exclaims, “if so, then there is no offering of reward, no purpose to our actions and no redemption or life beyond death!” Esav thinks to himself, “If that is so, then this world is painful and anxiety-inducing and I need to continue to escape it.” He looks to Yakov and asks to be fed, wanting to at least devour something. This is why it’s said that he did not cry over the person who died, Avraham, but to cried/mourned over the person who was essentially living towards death, Esav.  Esav saw it all as further proof that life has no purpose and that the blessing too had no use for him. He believed the moment and getting whatever you can was most important. So, he found the soup, for the moment, to be more valuable than a blessing in this and the next world, when he did not believe in the holiness of either. 

Yakov saw the holy effects that Avraham had in this and the next world, while Esav saw it as, even if you do good, you still die and then it’s all over. Everything is futile and so only worshiping one’s own desires is meaningful. Esav was a hunter, a killer; that’s why he came out red, symbolizing blood. Rabbi Abahu said, robber [is the same as] hunter. Esav represented evil, someone who doesn’t care about his fellow man or Hashem and so would steal, thinking it was a way of cheating life, while Yakov had full emunah and knew you can’t steal or cheat fate, as some of us call it, karma, as karma will always win in the end, and so the view motivating one to live in such a way is short-sighted and lacks any faith of unity, purpose and oneness. It’s the sort of view that Esav lived by and Jim Morrison proclaimed, that without faith in fate, one is motivated to be selfish and enjoy every moment of materialism till it all goes up in flames for them. 

The entire approach to life actually reminds me of a moment in my favorite film, Annie Hall in which little Alvy Singer is with his mother at the doctor’s office and the dialogue goes a little something like this:

Mrs. Singer: He’s been depressed. All of a sudden, he can’t do anything.

Doctor: Why are you depressed, Alvy?

Mrs. Singer: Tell Dr. Flicker. [To the doctor] It’s something he read.

Doctor: Something he read, huh?

Alvy: The universe is expanding…Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that will be the end of everything.

Mrs. Singer: What is that your business? [To the doctor] He stopped doing his homework.

Alvy: What’s the point?

Mrs. Singer: What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not expanding.

Doctor: It won’t be expanding for billions of years yet, Alvy. And we’ve got to try to enjoy ourselves while we’re here, huh, huh? Ha, ha, ha.17

Both Alvy and the Doctor are speaking from a place of Esav, a place where the purpose of this world isn’t connected to the next world, it is just a temporal space leading to nothingness. So there are only two choices for such a person: one, to remain hopeless and depressed and unmotivated, and the other to be a slave to the self and its desires, trying to quench its insatiable thirst making a life without purpose filled with pleasure. 

I’m a big fan of all the seemingly endless and epic work that Rabbi Chaim Kramer, the brains behind the Breslov Research Institute, does. Beyond translating the 15 volumes of Likutey Moharan into English and doing the same for the Likutey Halachot, he is the author of countless books around Breslov Chassidut and one of his famous ones is titled, Anatomy of the Soul, exploring the Torah’s depiction of man as being created in Hashem’s image, writing from the lessons of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. In his book, he shares a beautiful teaching by R’ Chaim Vital, the foremost student of The Holy Arizal, wherein Vital in his book Sha’arey Kedusha, shares the following:

Just as a master craftsman can carve the human figure in stone, so did the Master Craftsman fashion the body in the exact same form as the soul. Since the soul itself parallels the composition of the Torah, with both positive mitzvot and its prohibitions, so too the limbs of the body, though formed from the four material elements, parallel the “limbs” for the soul and the corresponding mitzvot. 

Adam was to have lived eternally. By eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he sullied both his soul and his body. As a result, illness, suffering and death descended upon humanity, as Adam was warned18, “But from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil eat nothing, for on the day you eat from it, mot tamut [you will surely die].” The double idiom mot tamut means literally, “dying, you will die,” indicating a double death – both physical and spiritual. 

Adam was the paradigm of a spiritual man. However, having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he descended to a material level, dragging all of creation down with him. Furthermore, by partaking of both good and evil, he caused everything in creation to become a mixture of good and evil.19

From Adam and Eve, and the breaking of the Edenic state to the state that we find ourselves in, our struggle, our task and indeed our purpose is to spiritualize reality by bringing light into our own darkness (prati), and by doing so, to bring light into the world (klali). By continuously doing this and focusing on the light, and elevating the dark fallen sparks, we grab the heel of the other side, and bring it to the side of truth. “Truth when pursued will always wash away faithlessness and falsehood,” as it’s written in Shoftim.  Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land the Lord, your God, is giving you.20 This is because truth and justice is how we merit to stay alive and settle the Promised Land. This isn’t only referring to Israel, but how each of us can reach our own promised land and find personal redemption. 

 

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Notes & Sources

  1. Pirkei Avot 4:2
  2. Genesis 4:7
  3. Kiddushin 30b
  4. Genesis 25:23
  5. Ezekiel 26:2
  6. Megillah 6a
  7. R’ Y. Nachshoni, Hagot B’Parshiot HaTorah, p. 136
  8. Likutey Moharan I, 25:1, 57:8
  9. Likutey Halachot II, pp. 450 – 226a
  10. Likkutei Dibburim, p 692a, English Edition, Vol. IV, p. 287
  11. Psalms 91:11
  12. The Lonely Man of Faith by Joseph B. Soloveitchik
  13. The Doors – “Live in Concert”
  14. Jeremiah 22:10
  15. Bereishit Rabbah 63:11
  16. “The Inner World of Addiction 7: One Moment at a Time” video by Joey Rosenfeld
  17. Annie Hall, a film by Woody Allen
  18. Genesis 2:17
  19. Sha’arey Kedusha 1:1
  20. Deuteronomy 16:20