Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh

The Paths of Yaakov and Esav

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By: Rav Moshe Stav

The story of Yitzchak’s brachot to his children raises an obvious question: Why did Yitzchak originally intend to give the bracha to Esav? Some meforshim, including the Seforno, Beit HaLevi, and Malbim, explain that Yitzchak intended to bless Esav only with the brachot of physical bounty. It was Yitzchak’s intention that Esav would develop the world and involve himself in matters of physicality so that Yaakov would be able to devote himself to the study of Torah. These matters of gashmiut would be a distraction for Yaakov, but they would fill Esav’s life with substance.


The Ramban, in contrast, writes explicitly that Yitzchak’s intention was that Esav would be the continuation of the brit with Avraham. In Ramban’s view, Yitzchak did not think that Esav was a rasha. (The Ramban must therefore explain Chazal’s statement that Yitzchak felt Yaakov’s arm because he was confused about his identity, as Esav did not usually use Hashem’s name, as Yaakov had.)


According to this approach, if Yitzchak viewed Esav as the son who would continue the brit with Hashem, why did Yitzchak so easily accept the “change of plans,” blessing Yaakov when he left for Charan with the bracha of Avraham without any hesitation? Furthermore, the content of the brachot that Yaakov “stole” relate only to matters of gashmiut, as the meforshim cited above note.


During their encounter, Yitzchak feels Yaakov’s hand and smells him, declaring, “The voice is the voice of Yaakov and the hands are the hands of Esav” (Bereishit 27:22) According to the peshat, Yitzchak hesitated because of this apparent contradiction. However, Chazal explain that the pasuk teaches that the hands of Esav do not rule over Yaakov when his voice is heard in the batei knesset and batei midrash. They further taught that no war is successful without the help of the “hand of Esav,” and no prayer is accepted that does not include the “voice of Yaakov.”


It is also notable that in Hashem’s words to Rivka in the beginning of the parsha, there is no indication of which son would be the tzaddik and which the rasha. Indeed, in interpreting the pasuk, “Shnei goyim bibitneich,” “Two nations are in your womb” (25:23) Chazal explain that the message was “shnei gei’im bibitneich,” “there are two leaders in your womb,” referring to Antoninus and Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi – both of whom were tzaddikim.


In order to understand this, we must first understand the role of human rule in this world. On the pasuk, “And God saw everything that He had done, and behold it was tov me’od” (1:31) many derashot explain that “tov” refers to something whose benefit is immediately obvious, whereas “me’od” refers to something that is perceived as evil and whose benefit is only seen later, such as sleep and death. According to one of the derashot, “tov” refers to malchut Shamayim, whereas “me’od” refers to the human kingdom. According to some texts, “me’od” refers specifically to the kingdom of Edom – the Romans – as they fight against human suffering. In other words, they defend human rights.


Society cannot exist or develop without a system of government. On the basic level, a government prevents murder and theft, as indicated by the mishna in Avot (): “Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear of it, man would swallow his fellow alive.” But more importantly, a government unites society into one unit.


This idea is explained at length by the Maharal. The mishna states in Sanhedrin, man was created as an individual in order to teach that every man is considered like an entire world. For this reason, every person aspires to rule over the entire world. (This is reflected in the phenomenon of competition; even friends who are competing with one another will trample each other without hesitation.) In the jungle, there is a balance between the wild animals and the other plant and animal life, as the carnivores do not consume more than their needs. Man, however, does not stop there. Without an external system of governance, the world could not exist. Human government thus creates a functional society by uniting the individuals into a whole by creating a common goal, with the ruler representing the group. (Indeed, the success of any government depends on the degree to which the common people view it as reflective of their general outlook and the extent to which it creates a sense of a group. This explains the power of national symbols, from a flag to national sports teams.)


Torah scholars reflect malchut Shamayim, and they too aspire to conquer worlds. Indeed, they succeed in doing so: “In the future, HaKadosh Baruch Hu will give to each and every tzaddik 310 worlds.” The chachamim are referred to as kings, achieving rule over everything. They do not need to suppress others in order to express their kingship. Rather, their spiritual sense helps them to rule over their inner worlds, and they thereby influence others – giving them malchut.


The world moves forward on two “tracks.” Malchut Shamayim is rooted in the spiritual perfection of the spiritual individual, who is an entire world in and of himself (as opposed to a physical individual, who views the life of one who is solely occupied in Torah as boring and un-valuable, much as a carpenter might view the work of an artist). The power of human malchut, in contrast, is rooted in the human aspiration to rule over the world, fulfilling the command and the blessing delivered at the time of man’s creation: “Fill the land and conquer it, and rule over the fish of the sea…” (Bereishit 1:28). As the navi states, “He did not create it to be empty; He formed it to be settled” (Yeshayahu 45:18). Indeed, the Rambam writes that man should be involved only in the pursuit of wisdom and settling the world.


However, a society dedicated to spirituality and service of Hashem must also dedicate itself to the development and material success of the world, as that is the basis of their spiritual perfection. Just as an individual who is hungry or ill will not be able to dedicate himself to higher ends, the same is true of society as a whole.” At the same time, even those dedicated to the physical development of the world also seek out a spiritual element. Every person aspire to fulfill his unique role; if he does not, he will feel a sense of emptiness. Even as he works to advance the world through the development of technology and science, he has a natural need for culture and art, or other values that give life meaning. Thus, the two “tracks” complement and supplement one another.


This ideal is expressed in the example of Antoninus and Rebbe, but the recognition of the need for both worlds remains an ideal. Esav himself recognized that there was no meaning to his life without Yaakov, and that is why he asked Yaakov to accompany him back to Har Se’ir. Yaakov, however, did not believe in the possibility of synthesizing the two worlds.


Although we cannot truly understand the way in which Hashem runs the world, the Rambam provides a glimpse in his explanation of the success of Yeshu (Esav) and Mohammed (Yishmael). The Rambam explains that they spread the faith in Hashem in a manner that was appropriate for the natures of their people, which would not have been possible in the manner pursued by Yaakov. Indeed, it was precisely their faults, as expressed in their aspiration of endless conquest, that led to the spread of the values of belief, as well as other human values. Their influence is apparent when compared to the state of the Far East, where their teachings have reached only more recently. Their faults also allowed them to transmit imperfect values regarding belief in God, such that they merged it with a pagan outlook. They were therefore able to spread and influence for an extended period. But this is not the way of Yaakov. Hashem chose Yaakov, whose power lies in his truth, not in his numbers – the power of Esav, who declared, “Yesh li rav,” “I have much” (Bereishit 33:9).


Yitzchak recognized the strengths that drove his two sons – the power of action of Esav, the man of the field, and the spiritual power of Yaakov, the ish tam yoshev ohalim. Yitzchak had been commanded not only to travel the land, but also to dwell in it, and Chazal explain that this implies that he was instructed to build and plant. Yitzchak therefore viewed Esav, the man of action, as the driving force that would develop the world. (Indeed, when it comes to public roles, and even educational ones, we often prefer the friendly do-er over the God fearing Torah scholar.)


In front of Yitzchak stood a person who shared the special talents of his two sons – the hands of Esav and the voice of Yaakov. It was this persona whom Yitzchak wished to bless. The Drashot HaRan writes that Yitzchak was uncertain regarding the identity of the person he was blessing, and he therefore left the decision to Hashem, giving the blessing that he desired to at that moment. Yitzchak did not plan what to bless, but was inspired at that moment by ruach hakodesh. The content of his bracha thus cannot prove what his intention was.


In the end, Esav is pushed aside, despite his strengths. The fulfillment of the brit depends on spiritual perfection. Human initiative, despite its positive purpose, is not the end goal, although it includes an element of truth and is not all negative.


When Shmuel HaNavi first saw Dovid’s red hair, he assumed that the boy was inclined to be a murderer, just like Esav. Hashem, however, pointed out that Dovid was “yefeh einayim,” and Chazal explain that this means that he consults with beit din. Hashem assured Shmuel that although Dovid indeed had some of Esav’s characteristics, he was not impulsive; his consultation with beit din assured that he would not murder, but rather consider how to ensure justice.


It is interesting to note that Dovid was himself the descendant of another twin – Peretz, the twin brother of Zerach. The gemara in Yevamot writes that Peretz’s descendants were kings, and the descendants of Zerach were great people. Both sons of Yehuda and Tamar merited greatness. Indeed, Chazal contrast the twin sons of Rivka, who the Torah describes as תומים, with those of Tamar, who are described as תאומים, explaining that the alef in the latter case indicates that both sons were tzaddikim. Apparently, Chazal saw that there is a connection between these two sets of twins, and the similarities are, in fact, evident. In both births, one of the twins extends his hand to halt the progress of his brother, and in both cases, the color red is prominent – the red string gave Zerach his name, although that red is less bright than the red that gave Esav the name Edom.


It seems that just as Yitzchak fathered to types of kingship – malchut Shamayim and malchut of man – Yehuda is similarly the father of Torah and leadership. The Torah emphasizes that the hand of action – the hand of Zerach – burst forth and attempts to rule. Dovid HaMelech subjugated this power of action, the trait of Esav, to the rule of the Torah. (See the mishna in Sanhedrin 2, which describes the difference between the kings of Yisrael and those of Beit Dovid, as well as the explanation of the Rambam there.)


Notably, Chazal drew a connection between the hand and the red string and the sin of Achan. Achan’s sin was rooted not only in his desire for possessions, but also in the fact that he did not completely accept the rule of Yehoshua, who was a descendant of Yosef. (The midrash writes that there was in fact a battle between the descendants of Yehuda and those of Yosef, and Achan would make fun of Yehoshua’s decisions.) Achan’s sin was rooted in Zerach’s stretching out of his hand. When those who study Torah attempt to grab power outside of their realm, they descend into involvement in means that are not appropriate for their level.

Shiur ID: 7463

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