- And God 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." When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first one emerged red, like a hairy mantle all over; so they named him Esau. Then his brother emerged, holding on to the heel of Esau; so they named him Jacob…. When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man, who stayed in camp. (Genesis 25:23-27)
- When Esau heard his father's words, he burst into wild and bitter sobbing and said to his father, "Bless me, too, Father!" (Genesis 27:34)
Although the Bible reveals positive and negative traits about both Jacob and Esau, Esau has received harsher treatment in our tradition. Why?
Esau is described as "a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors," a hungry and emotional individual who follows his passions. Beset with rage at Jacob because he stole Isaac's blessing, Esau, we are told, plans to kill Jacob (Genesis 27:41). Yet when Esau and Jacob reunite several chapters later, "Esau ran to greet him [Jacob]. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept" (Genesis 33:4).
Jacob, on the other hand, is described as an ish tam, a "mild man," who cleverly acquires the birthright from a hungry Esau and who, in their father's words, "came with guile and took away your [Esau's] blessing" (Genesis 27:35). Parashat Toldot beautifully illustrates the striking difference between the natures of the two brothers, setting the stage for the later contrasts between Israel and her enemies.
Aside from God's providence and Esau's angry threat, Esau actually seems to have done little to merit his negative status in history. The Bible identifies him as the father of Edom and Amalek, two tribes that were enemies of the Hebrews. The Rabbis drew a further connection by associating Esau and Edom with Rome, thereby linking Esau to the destruction of Judaism. The midrash describes Esau as an idolater (Genesis Rabbah 63:6), a murderer ( Pirkei D' Rabbi Eliezer 24), and one who spoke disrespectfully to his father (Tanchuma, Toldot 11), thus adding troubling details about Esau that are absent from the biblical text.
Why is the Rabbis' portrayal of Esau so negative? Perhaps it is because the drama of the Israelites' story required rivals whose actions and natures contrasted with the values embodied in Jacob. The Rabbis used the brothers' characteristics to teach us lessons about behavior. Hence rabbinic literature crafted an ideal embodied by Jacob, who was quiet, studious, thoughtful, and emotionally in control. On the other hand, Esau's unbridled passion was problematic for the Rabbis, who struggled with emotion. As it is written, "Who is mighty? One who controls one's natural urges" (Pirkei Avot 4:1).
Is there room for the values that Esau represents in our present-day ideal? Do we value passion? Is the expression of our emotions important? Early Zionist thinkers challenged the rabbinic role model of the yeshivah student: In calling upon Jews to return to the land, to perform physical work outdoors as Esau did, they recognized that people should possess a healthy balance of the traits attributed to both Jacob and Esau.
Yet we still encourage our youth to model themselves on Jacob. Today's young people seem to be buried under more homework than previous generations. Because of tight competition for admissions to the best colleges and universities, they strive to achieve academically, spending hours indoors, venturing out only to fulfill sports requirements. Personally, I am often amazed at how well young people seem to be handling the incredible pressures of adolescent life today. Yet many of them, in an effort to succeed at everything, appear to lack the passion for anything specific, striving only to make better grades.
As a people, Jews have excelled academically and intellectually, but we have also enriched the world through our passion for music and art. Passion and emotion are important parts of life: They enable us to enjoy its riches and also to experience love and caring. Both Jacob and Esau exhibit strengths and weaknesses. We should aim to incorporate the intellect and self-control of Jacob as well as the passion of Esau into our own lives. By recognizing the attributes of each of these personalities, we can enrich our lives and make all our endeavors more meaningful.
By the Way
"And the children struggled together within her" [Genesis 25:22]. They sought to run within her. When she stood near the synagogues and schools, Jacob struggled to come out.… When she passed idolatrous temples, Esau struggled to come out. (Genesis Rabbah 63:6)
I don't mean to sound stuck up, but at least my voice and hands match. I'm your average man, perhaps, who doesn't presume to struggle with angels, who hasn't any time to chase Gods and erect new-fangled altars-who's at peace, I believe, with his own nature and fate, and whose conscience is clear (if there is such a thing) and more precious than pearls. My word! I don't envy him. Didn't he show me his mettle? He can have what's his, birthright and blessing. I felt their worth in my own flesh and haven't the slightest desire for them-no, thank you. ("Esau's Letter" by Aharon Amir in Modern Poems on the Bible: An Anthology, edited by David Curzon, Philadelphia: JPS, 1994, p. 147)
How does Genesis Rabbah 63:6 reflect the paths taken by Jacob and Esau in their lives?
The Torah tells us that Isaac favored Esau because Isaac had a taste for meat. The Torah does not tell us why Rebekah favored Jacob. Based on the midrash from Genesis Rabbah 63:6 and the Torah, why do you think that Rebekah favored Jacob?
In Amir's poem, what is Esau's criticism of Jacob? Do you think that it is fair?
Amir's poem suggests that Esau never really wanted the birthright and blessing. If this were true, would the biblical story have played out differently?
Rabbi Debra Pine is the Executive Director of Johns Hopkins University Hillel.