Blog Post

Struggle and Transformation

Struggle is a theme in this weeks Torah portion. It starts with our matriarch Rebecca in a struggling to get pregnant, and then when she successfully conceives, she suffers acute pain as a result of twins struggling with each other in her womb. The sages teach that during her pregnancy, if Rebecca would stroll past a house of idol worship she would feel as though the baby wants to emerge, conversely, when she would pass a study hall, where Torah was being studied, she felt exactly the same urge.

This paradox left Rebecca utterly confused, and so she seeks relief and guidance from the sages of her time, who advise her “Two nations are in your womb and two peoples shall diverge from your belly; and one nation will struggle against the other” (Genesis 25; 23). Rebecca is essentially delivered some sobering news, namely, that her family won’t be much different than that of her father in law, Abraham.
Abraham also had two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, Isaac continued Abraham’s legacy and followed his path, Ishmael, chose quite a different way of life. “Your twins,” Rebecca is told, will follow a similar course.

The Jacob and Esau story raises numerous questions. Firstly, Isaac and Rebecca were righteous and refined individuals how could they have possibly given birth to a child with a propensity for evil, while still in his mother’s womb. Furthermore, labeling Esau as evil, prior to birth, is inconsistent with the fundamental Jewish belief in free will, are we predetermining the outcome of Esau’s life before he lived it? In addition, we need to understand the need for the extra information given to Rebecca, in response to her quandary. All Rebecca wanted to know, was why the baby inside her seemed confused, the sages could have answered her straightforwardly and simply, by saying, there are two very different children in your womb, hence the divergent urges. Why the need to discuss the distant future, when these twins will turn into nations who will in turn struggle with each other?

The Jacob and Esau story is an ongoing one; it’s the story of struggle between good and evil that each of us is battling every day. Isaac and Rebecca gave birth to twins with differing personalities and character traits. These different sets of personalities represent two diverse paths in the service of G-d. Jacob personifies goodness, simplicity, and spirituality, “Jacob was an innocent man dwelling in tents”
(Genesis 25; 27). Jacob was naturally disinclined to engage in behaviors that run contrary to the values of his parents and grandparents. Esau was a hunter, aggressive and physical, a man of battle and conquest, as described in the verse: “And Esau was a man who understood hunting, a man of the field.”

While Jacob’s mission and concern in life was to further develop goodness, Esau’s goal was to transform evil into good. Esau’s was to overcome and transform his innate temptation and attraction to evil and remain righteous. God intentionally created him with an inborn desire for idolatry so he can overcome it. Until the age of thirteen, Esau managed to channel his innate cunning toward outsmarting his evil inclination co-opting the material and sensual aspects of life for holy purposes. This is why Isaac preferred Esau over Jacob as stated in Genesis 25; 28: And Isaac loved Esau because game was in his mouth.” The “hunting” and “game” that Esau was involved with, represents his ability to conquer and transform evil into good, which is a much more difficult and rewarding task. Esau had this Trans formative quality from before birth, thus shedding light on why, while still in womb, he struggled to emerge when his mother would pass a house of idol worship, because he wanted to transform it from evil to good.

Evil is a creation of G-d, goodness is an extension of G-d. G-d created evil not so humanity would choose it, but so that humanity could choose it. By design, Goodness and evil are equal options and humanity is free to choose one or the other. When we choose good over evil, out of our own free will, that choice is made out of conviction and resolve, it’s our choice and we are different for it. This is why Isaac saw Esau’s path of transformation, as ultimately reaching higher then the path of Jacob.

The Talmud states: The greater a person is, the greater his evil inclination,” Esau had tremendous abilities, far greater then Jacob and thus his evil inclination was matching in size. The greater his potential strength and possibility for achievement the higher the stakes and magnitude for failure were as well. The same applies to us as well, those of us who are challenged by addictions and temptations far greater than the average person need to understand, that we have also been given spiritual strengths far greater the that of the average person. Had Esau utilized his talents and capabilities appropriately he could have achieved and transformed much more than Jacob could have ever hoped for, but instead he succumbed to the temptations and the rest is history.

The message of the sages to Rebecca is an eternal message to each of us, we need to understand that: “Two nations are in your womb,” We are each made up of a Jacob and Esau inside of us and we are constantly faced with a choice. We need to remember that the possibility of good and bad choices and the struggle we are constantly in is the natural order of things, by design. Our evil inclination is no more powerful than our G-dly soul and inclination for good, the challenges we face are never insurmountable, if the temptation seems so strong, and it is surely within our capabilities to overcome it. “One nation will struggle against the other,” this is a zero sum game, only one or the other can rule us at any given time, we can either choose good and then by extension we are pushing evil out, the same is true in the reverse.

Shabbat Shalom

— Rabbi Meir Kessler