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1 Kislev 5764 - November 26, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
Yaakov and Eisov -- Spirit and Materialism

by R' Yerachmiel Kram

"And the youths grew, and Eisov was a cunning hunter, a man of the field, and Yaakov was a plain man, dwelling in the tents" (Bereishis 25:27).

The Battle Over Matter and Spirit

A mighty battle wages between the factions of humanity, an age-old conflict as ancient as all of mankind. This is not necessarily a war of arrows and arms, but rather a fight of ideas and approaches that are basic to the different types of weltanschauungen.

Sometimes it takes the shape of a struggle between Yaakov and Eisov, and sometimes between Jews and gentiles. Sometimes it is waged between the Perushim and the Tzedukim, and at other times between the religious and the secular. The former regard their habitat as anchored in the World to Come, with their sojourn in this world as passage through a corridor. Others see the pleasures of this world as the be- all. There are the tent-dwellers and the hunters of the field.

And they come in all stripes and shades of the spectrum. There are identifiable characteristics which Yaakov's descendants and spiritual heirs share, and those which are common to the carriers of Eisov's genes and philosophy. Yaakov is interested in spiritual things, while Eisov is preoccupied with physical, materialistic pursuits. In its account of these non-identical twins who were born into the home of Yitzchok and Rivka, the Torah presents a partial analysis of the differences in character traits that separate Yaakov and Eisov.

Eisov and Yaakov

The very name of the elder son, given to him at birth, already predicts the feeling that this sinner had towards his own personality. "The name `Eisov' signifies `osui -- fully formed,' complete" (see Rashi (25:25). From the perspective of the wicked, he sees himself as whole. He does not see himself as obligated to make any effort whatsoever to complete his personality or to improve his soul. He invests all of his vigor in fulfilling his material needs, in increasing his property, satisfying his desires and in making his life as comfortable as possible. He devotes no time or effort whatsoever to anything of the spirit. In that area, he is satisfied with his lot; whatever he has in the way of spirituality suffices.

Not so the tzaddik. He always sees himself as a person lacking in good deeds, falling short of what he can expect of himself and continually obliged to work hard to improve. "Yaakov" denotes heel and humility. His feeling at all times is that he falls very short of what is expected of him, and that he must strive to improve himself as part of his ongoing spiritual ascent (Shem MiShmuel).

It is said that the Yehudi Hakodosh of Pschischa earned his sobriquet because each day he felt born anew as a Jew compared to the `goy' he considered himself to have been, by contrast, the previous day. The striving for perfection should be regarded by one who serves Hashem, as he measures himself by his achievements from one day to the next, like the difference between a Jew and a gentile!

One Chassidic leader expounded upon the verse, "Let us make a man in our form and in our likeness," which was stated by Hashem on the sixth day of Creation, as an indication of man's partnership and cooperation in his very own creation. A one-day-old ox is called an ox (Bovo Kammo 65b). It has nothing to do with its coming into being or development after being created. On the other hand, man strives to perfect himself in soul and spirit and is considered, as it were, a partner to Hashem in making himself. Hashem provided him with a functioning body and it is up to him to perfect and complete his soul.

Majority and Minority

"And the first came out all ruddy like a hairy garment, and they called his name Eisov. And after that came out his brother, and his hand took hold onto Eisov's heel, and he called his name Yaakov" (Bereishis 25:25-26). We cannot help noting the plural form for the act of naming Eisov -- "and they called him . . ." whereas by Yaakov, it states, "And he called . . . " This teaches us that wickedness, evil and heresy are most prevalent in the world, whereas righteousness, goodness and faith are solitary and singular in the world, a small minority within a tumultuous, violent majority.

This does not mean that one must become alarmed by the fact that he is small and weak as opposed to the huge masses of those who abhor Hashem, as it were, and distance themselves from Him. Even though one is puny and numerically insignificant, this should not tarnish the clear truth which he bears aloft as a banner ever since the Revelation at Sinai, via Pumbedisa and Neharda'a, via the dungeons of the Inquisition and their auto-de-fe bonfires and up to the crematories of Auschwitz.

HaRav Yonoson Eibshitz zt'l was once confronted by a priest who asked him to explain the stubbornness of Jewish survival through the ages, in view of the huge majority of humanity which believed otherwise. "Does not your own Torah teach you to follow the majority?" he asked.

It is said that R' Yonoson retorted immediately, "Granted, that the majority rule is effective in certain circumstances, that is, when there is a doubt. If, for example, we are uncertain whether a piece of meat is treif or it was slaughtered properly, we must follow the majority rabbinical opinion. However this is clearly not the rule if we are certain that a given hunk of meat is neveiloh. Then we must follow what we know for certain to be true."

If we are dealing with the question of majority rule, it is apt to mention an additional response provided by HaRav Elchonon Wasserman Hy'd who argued that there is no question here, altogether. In our instance, the majority is no majority since its deductions are not logical conclusions but decisions arrived at based on personal interests, the rationalizations prompted by moral weakness. Consequently, there is no basis to recognize such decisions (see Parshas Lech Lecho, `Hashomayim Mesaprim Kvod Kel').

"And His Hand Grasped Eisov's Heel"

For the extent of his life, Yaakov is constantly holding on to Eisov's heel. Whatever Eisov treads upon, what he dismisses as insignificant and marginal, is considered important in the beis midrash of Yaakov.

Eisov is interested in theaters, pleasures, material amenities and everything connected to this mundane world. He is distant from Torah, piety, prayer and avodas Hashem. He despises commandments like that of lulav, matzoh, Chanukah candles, sacrifices, gastronomical prohibitions. He not only ridicules them but he distances himself as far as he can from them, with intense distaste.

Eisov, the spiritual ancestor of the abusers of all that is holy throughout the generations, rejects his birthright with contempt. And this primary abuse is symbolic of that attitude throughout the ages. Let Yaakov take the birthright and all it entails to his heart's content, says Eisov, so long as he can fill his gullet with the lentil soup, a pottage that has been proverbially simmering from the very day he reached manhood and went forth to the beckoning fields -- up to the moment when he relinquishes his hold on life and the clods of earth are mounded upon his grave.

Yaakov's hand holds on to all that his brother's foot treads upon with haughtiness and pride. Yaakov is prepared to sell something which he knows to have value -- the mourner's repast of lentils -- for the gain of serving Hashem in the Beis Hamikdosh. Yaakov reasons to himself, "This sinner is not worthy of sacrificing to Hashem." And Eisov asks, "Of what nature is this worship, in any event?" And Yaakov replies, "It involves numerous warnings and punishments and forms of death [to the violator]. As is taught: These merit the death penalty -- Those who have drunk wine [and performed the holy service] or who are bareheaded . . . " Declares Eisov: "I am doomed to die through these restrictive laws of birthright. Who needs this?" (Rashi).

Throughout the ages, Yaakov is prepared to sell his crust of bread for the sake of standing in the House of Hashem. His descendants forego high wages and offices of great prestige for the privilege of remaining within the tent of Torah and serving Hashem, by day and by night.

And Eisov, now as then, smiles and says: Well, Yaakov is only a simple, naive fellow, after all.

The day will come, however, when he matures. He will wipe the smile off his face and will shout like a Cossack over the birthright that Yaakov stole from him. But a great deal of time will pass until then. Meanwhile, however, he laughs; he laughs and calls to his buddies to join him in his amusement (Yalkut Shimoni Bereishis 111).

Yaakov may resent the laughter but he knows that he has made a great and wise, if not yet obviously so, choice. He has acquired the birthright and his hand is still outstretched to grasp on to whatever Eisov continues to cast off and trample with his heel.

The Wicked are Destined to Regret

Eisov was not wicked merely to satisfy his desires. He was a sinner who scorned the birthright out of heretical ideology. So it seems on the surface -- but even his ideology is still only a cover-up for his base desires. And even if this is maintained after he has sated his lust, after he has eaten his fill of the lentil soup, the underlying motif is still that of providing justification for his desire, a rationalization for his action. As Chazal said: "Israel sinned with idolatry only so that they could allow themselves to commit arayos with open brazenness" (Sanhedrin 63b).

Nonetheless, even a wicked one opens his eyes in his old age, when his desires wane and he is sated with the pleasures of this world. He is suddenly prepared to think that perhaps he was mistaken after all, in having sold the birthright.

When he originally made this transaction, Eisov was befuddled. He finished his repast but was still bewildered. This-world still beckoned to him, glittering and sparkling, winking, enticing him with its spectrum of pleasures and desires. He had no time to contemplate such small things like birthrights or Shabbos morning prayers in the beis haknesses. He finished his lentil soup and from there, rushed off straight to the field, the amusement parks, the pleasure outings of Shabbos desecration and all those preoccupations involving various idol worships and forbidden sights.

In his subconscious mind, he knows that at that very time there are masses listening to the reading of the Torah. They are the firstborn of Hashem. But he has no time for what -- in his eyes -- are empty rituals and strange religious pastimes. He does not want to miss a moment of enjoyment, so long as he can still indulge.

Years pass however, and with them his capacity for enjoying earthly pleasures. He reaches old age and very little is left of his desires. The bitter odor of the grave, of the pit of Gehennom, rises to his nostrils and then he begins to shout, "He stole my birthright."

The birthright suddenly becomes an object of worth, something whose loss he bemoans -- when some fifty years before it was an object of scorn and derision.

But it is already too late. One can, of course, repent until the very last moment before death, but one cannot restore the lost pages of gemora or make up for the default of mitzvas tefillin. These are lost opportunities that cannot be recaptured.

It is our obligation to remember this, for we are Yaakov's descendants. Each of us has his own `lentil pottage' to deal with, his own weakness for which he will sell his birthright, the eternal values in which he sets stock. We also daily exchange spiritual acquisitions for various soups that tempt our palates in strange ways. Each one and his individual taste and temptations.

We would do well to remember the high price which we must pay for these aromatic dishes which the yetzer hora cooks up for us.

And the sooner we remind ourselves, the better.

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