by R' Yerachmiel Kram
Yaakov and Eisov -- Spirit and Materialism
"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
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
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,
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
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"
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
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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