Torah Thoughts for Today
Monday, January 19, 2004
#6 The Ultimate Rivalry: Jacob and Esau Compete Forever.
The Ultimate Rivalry: Jacob and Esau Compete Forever
(Related to the Torah portion of Toldot (“Chronicles”) read in synagogue. Genesis Chapter 25, verse 19 – Chapter 28, verse 9. English text and commentary at
http://bible.ort.org/books/pentd2.asp?ACTION=displaypage&BOOK=1&CHAPTER=25 Dedicated to my parents.)
People love to compete. Whether it’s real life Olympic competitions between nations or sportsmen, battlefield encounters or economic contests, or cerebral matching of wits by chess masters and Nobel laureates, or the vicarious thrills of watching others play games or losing oneself in the challenge of a video game. Not to mention that unique spectacle of beauty pageants with nubile women looking to outperform their rivals. Gambling (ugh). Or, the terror of watching men compete with beasts in bullfights or rodeos, and boxing :-( .
The competitive instinct is deeply ingrained. Most parents and cultures further develop and inculcate the values that they aspire to in their children. Maybe that’s why people like the idea of belonging to a human “race”, be it racing to the end of a day, drag racing on a highway, the mystique of horse racing, or just surviving the rat race. Could that perhaps be the root of “racism”, the beliefs that pit one type of people against another, measuring artificial quotas of human qualities in different types of people? And of course, a tough by- product of chasing to become the top honcho, is the win-lose ratio. In any “race”, “rivalry’, or “competition”, there have to be winners and losers. The higher the stakes, the greater the danger and potential shame or harm for the losing side. Winners like to think that they “take all”, and losers…well… they are just “loooosers”.
In classical Judaism, the race to beat all races is the pre-ordained rivalry between the world’s most famous twins: Jacob and Esau.
The sole children of Isaac and Rebecca, they start a potentially murderous struggle while yet in their mother’s womb. The one born first is called Esau, from the Hebrew root “asa”, meaning done or complete, because he arrived with signs of physical “completion”, hair, teeth (which he used to chew his mother’s guts to the point of her subsequent infertility, say the rabbis), strong body, the “complete man”. His brother is called Jacob, from the Hebrew root “ekev”, meaning “heel”, because he arrived determinedly clutching on to the heel of his twin brother Esau. And endowed with the foreknowledge that he has the power to bring about the submission of his recalcitrant brother Esau by pulling him down via a veritable “Achilles heel” when the time will arrive for Esau’s downfall.
Esau is described as a HUNTER verbally and physically, whereas Jacob is a DWELLER in tents. Ok, so they were different, radically different, which makes them NO different to billions of other siblings, so what makes them so unique?
Who exactly are these two primal rivals? Why is their birth so significant that it needs to be described in the Torah? What does it mean for Jewish and world destiny?
Suffering excruciating pregnancy pains and fearing her own death from the unbearable turmoil in her womb, Rebecca begs of God for an explanation. In one fateful verse, the destiny of her sons and of all mankind till the end of time is revealed:
“…Two nations (“geim/goyim”) are in your womb, and two races/governments/regimes (“le-umim”) will separate from your bowels; and one race/government/regime shall be more powerful than the other (“ule-om mi-leom ye-amutz”) ; and the greater one will serve the younger (“ve-rav ya-avod tzair”)” (Genesis 25, v. 23)
Who are these “nations” exactly? The rabbis teach that these are nations that will grow out of Jacob and Esau, and will take center stage on the world’s longest running greatest historical geopolitical and ideological, spiritual and religious, claims to ultimate vindication, legitimacy, and triumph of Judaism over all its arch-rivals. It becomes clearer whom they are referring to when they make specific mention that it will ultimately be descendants of Jacob such as the Children of Israel (Jacob is renamed Israel) and King Solomon, Queen Esther, and Rabbi Judah the Prince, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, and the Jewish Messiah, who will face the descendants of Esau such as the Amalekites, Edomites, and Rome, Haman and the Roman Emperor Hadrian, and Anthony, the Caesars, Vespasian, Titus, and Gog and Magog and their War (“Armageddon”) in the End of Days.
The great rabbinic commentator Rashi points out that when it says that when one “shall be more powerful that the other” (“ule-om mi-leom ye-amutz”), it is deliberately vague and equivocal since it could be either power that is dominant. This is precisely so, because an awesome principle is derived from this verse that indeed, either brother’s power has the potential to dominate the other, but never simultaneously. Only one can predominate at any given time. “They will never be equal in domination, because WHEN THE ONE RISES, THE OTHER FALLS” (“ke-she-zeh kam, zeh nofel”).
The Artscroll commentary on Genesis (Breishis), records the classic sources on the these fateful words:
“The two of them will never be mighty simultaneously: when one regime falls, the other will rise. The TALMUD in Tractate Megillah 6a, citing our verse, derives from Ezekial 26:2, in which Tyre colonized by the descendants of Esau, says of Jerusalem: I SHALL BE FILLED, SHE IS LAID WASTE (Rashi). This means that Tyre’s rise DEPENDED UPON THE DOWNFALL OF JERUSALEM. Thus the war between them is inevitable for the rise of one is contingent on the fall of the other. This condition began when each conquered its own land and will continue until the coming of the Messiah, (as cited by the commentator Malbim).
Thus according to the commentator Mizrachi’s interpretation of Rashi, the prepositional prefix “mi” of “mi-leom”, means “FROM the regime”: one regime will derive might FROM the other. That is, the “victorious” power will draw “wealth and strength” FROM the “vanquished”. Thus in no time in history were Jacob’s heirs, Israel, and Esau’s heirs, “Edom”= Rome, both equally and proportionately mighty at the same point in history.
Other commentators render the “mi” as the “COMPARATIVE THAN”. They render it as: One will always be mightier THAN the other. One will always be “braver” THAN the other. One will always COMPETE WITH the other.
Rabbi Hirsch renders: “One form of government will be mightier THAN the other”, explaining that Rebecca was prophetically informed that the two nations whose forebears she carried represented conflicting philosophies of government. One would base its greatness on the humane instincts of human beings, on their spiritual and moral greatness. The other would build on cunning and strength. One form of government would always be more powerful than the other. History is the story of the struggle between the spirit and the sword. Or, in the metaphor of the rabbinic sages, between Jacob’s (named Israel) Jerusalem representing “right”, and Esau’s Rome (of the Caesars) representing “might”.
Finally, the verse states; “And the elder (greater one) shall serve the younger” (“ve-rav ya-avod tzair”). Meaning that in the end, the younger will prevail, particularly as represented by the two nations they represent: Jerusalem/Israel versus Edom/Rome.
According to the Midrash this is a prophecy that will be fulfilled in the days of the Jewish Messiah at the end of time. The commentator Malbim, cites a verse in the prophet Obadiah 1:21 which describes the Messianic times when “Deliverers shall go up to Mount Zion to rule the hill country of Esau and dominion shall be God’s.”
Another factor in the conflict is that submission by the “greater” to the “younger” is against the laws of nature and it cannot take place without struggle and war.
According to the commentator Rashbam, this prophecy explains why Rebecca loved Jacob (v.28) as Jacob is portrayed by the prophets as the beloved of God, as in the prophet Malachi 1:2 “I –God- Loved Jacob”.
According to Rabbi Hirsch, the word “rav”, means “GREATER IN NUMBER AND POWER”. Although Esau’s forces will be mightier and emerge “triumphant” in his quest for material strength, ultimately it will be seen that Esau’s victories will have “paved the way” for Jacob’s FINAL TRIUMPH. The representative of “strength” will NOT Be destroyed, but will SUBMIT TO A NEW REALIZATION THAT SPIRITUAL PRINCIPLES ARE SUPERIOR.” [*1]
What is interesting here, is that Judaism does NOT desire a Pyrrhic victory over Esau’s ways and it does NOT want him or his many descendants “dead”. On the contrary, it anticipates the time when Esau’s dangerous “impulses” and “negative” character traits can be “sublimated”, “transferred” and “channeled” into positive directions, which is what happened at many times in history as when Rome built the infrastructure of roads, laws, and government upon which the entire Western World still relies on to the present. Additionally, many famous converts to Judaism came from Esau’s descendants.
Looking even deeper into this subject, the Jewish mystical sources consider the rivalry between Jacob and Esau to be a rivalry between an ADAM and an “ANTI-ADAM”. Jacob is the reconstituted original innocent Adam facing off yet again against the cunning Serpentine “Anti-Adam”, who like Esau specializes in bringing death and misery into the world. From Isaac’s seed and Rebecca’s womb, paralleling God’s primal incubator in Eden, spring these two antagonistic yet at the same time “symbiotic” beings, embodying two opposing forces and drives in the universe. One, Jacob, seeks to unite with the source of ‘Eternal Life’ of the Torah, “Give Truth To Jacob”, and the other, Esau, is there to block, harass, and short circuit him as he is called ‘Esau the Wicked’. Two opposing energy forces, a “positive” Jacob, and a “negative” Esau who can only achieve their own oppositional objectives by somehow co-opting the other into doing “their” bidding. The ultimate hand-wrestling match.
In ultimate terms it is the struggle between Good and Evil. Evil needs to be identified, its deceitful manipulations outed, and it takes a mother like Rebecca to do this tough job of “knowing her child”, and ultimately submit to and be harnessed by the Good, through the workings of a Divine Fate, in order to bring the world into a balanced state of Harmony, which is what the eventual Messianic age will be. Evil, the ‘SWORD OF ESAU’, can only exist and function if Good fumbles and stumbles, when the kind Jacob the Jew stalls in Torah observance, and then in a Dracula-like act of vampirism Evil uses the “blood” of the Good victim for evil purposes. It is no coincidence that Esau’s people enjoy tagging Jacob’s family with absurd “blood libel” monstrosities, the very evil that Esau commits he “projects” onto his defenseless victims. What a sadist! Good needs to be on constant guard not to fall “victim” to the lurking vampires waiting to pull off their distorted symbiotic stunts.
In our Torah portion, the great rivalry between Jacob and Esau is focused upon their attitudes to the great patriarchal BLESSING that will come from their father Isaac.
The notion of that special sort of “sibling rivalry” between the oldest and youngest children is manifested in the attitudes and interpretations each gives to his “status”.
In Torah law, a “first born” is entitled to an extra portion of their parents’ inheritance due to the unique nature of being “number one” to be born which is endowed with a greater holiness. Ultimately all “first born”, or “first fruits” are consecrated to a higher sanctity in Temple times.
Thus Esau, by dint of his chronological first come status, was entitled to the special blessings that went with this position. In his case it went even further, because he may have inherited the Divinely connected spiritual legacy of Abraham and Isaac. But it was not to be, because he “despised” his first born birthright, which is manifested in his cavalier attitude to it when Jacob “barters” it away from him for a bowl of lentil soup on a day when Esau was famished for something to eat. There are great hidden meanings in all of this that go beyond the scope of this essay.
One observation though, that whereas it was the ‘First Born Adam’ who was God’s ultimate creation, who succumbs to the wiles of a late appearing Serpent when Genesis commences, things will now reverse themselves when it will be the first born Esau who falls victim to his latterly born younger brother Jacob, reversing the damage to the world as it was meant to be. Whereas initially it is the wily Serpent who makes light of God’s command NOT to eat from a sublime Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and “tricks” Eve into eating from the forbidden, the situation is reversed when Jacob “tricks” Esau into eating a bowl of simple innocuous lentils in exchange for the sublime birthright treasure rooted in Abraham and Isaac’s Divine Mission on Earth. Two “meals” with world shattering “indigestion” repercussions. This is an act of delectable Divine Tragedy-Comedy marking Esau as an Apostate and Heretic worthy of the first Serpent. A complete turning around of the cosmic turntable.
What is of particular interest to us is the way this gets inserted into the nature of the Blessings that Isaac transmits to Jacob first, assuming him to be Esau since Rebecca camouflages Jacob:
“May God grant you the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, much grain and wine. Nations will serve you; governments will bow down to you. You shall be like a lord over your brother; your mother’s children shall prostrate themselves to you. Those who curse you are cursed, and those who bless you are blessed.” Genesis, Chapter 27 verses 28-29. [*2]
These words are directly based on the blessings God had vouchsafed Abraham and now Isaac transfers them onto Jacob. There is now an unbreakable bond between Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and they become the one and only PATRIARCHS of the Jewish People.
Clearly, the element of what is called “NITS-CHIUT”, meaning ‘ETERNAL TRIUMPH’, “Victory Forevermore” is now entrenched and insolubly embedded into the spiritual and physical genetic make-up of Jacob and his Children of Israel the Jewish People.
The original prenatal “ambiguous” prediction to Rebecca is now clarified and given over to Jacob ensuring that he will triumph at the end of time provided that his progeny will act as a Torah Nation till the end of time. The race is theirs to lose, no-one else can win this competition, they can only DELAY the outcome, even if it means a delay of two millennia! Jacob holds onto the “heel” of Esau in order to bring him “down to Earth” when the time will be right to do so.
And from where, you may ask, does Esau obtain his ability to mount and sustain a challenge even though he has long ago “conceded’ the race by exhibiting a reckless disregard for his birthright and the precious and holy blessings of Abraham and Isaac, and the obligations it once placed on him? Esau so disregarded his parents’ wishes that he married undesirable Hittite women that were “beneath himself”, and it was Rebecca, say the sages, who figured out that his “specialty” was seducing married women with his “wondrous ways with words”, and if ever their husbands would complain he would murder them using his abnormal physical physique to “bounce” them out of this world.
The man was extremely dangerous, and yet he did have some redeeming features…
Firstly, it must be acknowledged that Esau is a power to be reckoned with. The Torah sages teach that during their formative years Esau and Jacob were indistinguishable. They were both model students of their sagely grandfather Abraham, each absorbing his profound Godly wisdom. Esau in particular excelled in the commandment of Honor Your Father. Intellectually he knew that Isaac wanted only the best from him. Isaac was basically ready to grant him the primal family Blessings as due to his birthright, were it not for the intervention of Rebecca and Fate, as God would have it. He would after all one day give forth to the glories of Rome and everything it taught the world, both as a military and governmental power and subsequently as a Roman Catholic Church (again, a subject for another time). And then, being “second best” to Jacob is not something to be trifled with…a great honor in itself…but of course there is always that constant rivalry and competition factor that is so ingrained and rears its ugly head.
Secondly, one of the greatest “counter-strikes” against Jacob and long-lasting merits that Esau gains, is when he hears that Jacob has preemptively “tricked” him by obtaining the Blessings first, Esau lets out a tearful heart-rending and even heartfelt scream of anguish and remorse:
“ Isaac had finished blessing Jacob…when his brother came back from his hunt… ‘Let my father get up and eat his son’s venison,’ he said, ‘so that your soul may bless me.’ ‘Who are you?’ asked his father Isaac. ‘I am your first born, Esau,’ he replied. Isaac was seized with a violent fit of trembling. ‘Who, where, is the one who trapped game and just served it to me? I ate it all before you came and I blessed him. The blessing will remain his.’ When Esau heard his father’s words, HE LET OUT A MOST LOUD AND BITTER SCREAM. ‘BLESS ME TOO FATHER,’ HE PLEADED.” Genesis 27, verses 30-34. … “Esau said to his father, ‘Is there only one blessing that you have my father? Bless me too!’ Esau raised his voice and began to WEEP.” Genesis 27, v. 38. [*3]
It was with that WEEPING, the shedding of bitter heart rending tears, and “LOUD AND BITTER SCREAM” that Esau revealed a level of remorse and awareness for what had transpired. He felt genuine anguish and remorse for his major faux pas of “selling” his birthright status to Jacob for a trifle, and the rabbinic sages note that it was duly noted by God who would take it into consideration as a great merit to counterbalance all the evil Esau and his line were bound to perpetrate in revenge against his tricky brother Jacob:
“Esau was furious at Jacob because of the blessing that his father had given him. He said to himself, ‘The days of mourning for my father will be here soon. I will then be able to KILL MY BOTHER JACOB’.” Genesis 27, v. 41.
Hence the famous bitter rabbinic dictum: “It is a known law (“halachah”) that Esau HATES Jacob !”.
What kind of “law” (“halachah”) is this? Isn’t it very bizarre to refer to Esau’s murderous Thanatos impulses as a “law”? The answer that’s given, is that Esau’s compulsive murderous hatred for his brother Jacob, and here “Jacob” means all Jews, is that it can be assumed that it has the same “fixity” and “predictability” of a “law”. It’s so to speak “on the books”, or “written in stone”, that “bottom line”, no matter how things seem to be on the surface, contrary to any other appearances and assumptions, that Esau the prototype of an Apostate and Heretic, has one objective: The elimination of his hated brother and arch-rival, Jacob the Loyal Jew.
Thirdly, Esau does indeed obtain blessings from Isaac that will rock the world down through the ages, the power of the “MIGHT IS RIGHT” of the “SWORD” and world conquest that comes with it:
“His father Isaac then replied and said, ‘The fat places of the earth can still be your dwelling, and you can still have the dew of heaven. BUT YOU SHALL LIVE BY YOUR SWORD. You may have to serve your brother, but when your complaints mount up, you will throw his yoke off your neck’.” Genesis 27, verses 39-40. [*4]
Very ominous and portentous words indeed, laden with the blood of millions of Jewish victims of the Roman “SWORD” that has occurred over the past 2,000 years. Not just Jewish, the sages say that no war is ever won without either the application of Esau’s ‘Power of the Sword’, or Jacob’s ‘Power of Prayer’. Rome’s might and its strategies of warfare govern the outcome of history’s major wars, and its influence is far from fleeting. When the Jews of Judea stumbled and fumbled in the eyes of their God, it was Rome’s Legions that descended and, after horrendous battles and bloodshed, put the Judeans/Jews to the sword, burned the Temple to ashes, and hurled them into a two thousand year hellhole of repetitive Destruction and Exile. From Rome and its Caesars to the German Reich and its “Kaisers” it has been thus.
The greatest rivalry ever know to humankind is thus defined and brought onto focus. It should not be a mystery why primarily it’s the nations of the West, Esau’s heirs, which have always been the prime “haters” of Jacob’s heirs… “It is a known law that Esau hates Jacob!” Esau is described as “ruddy” at birth. He is known as Edom, the Hebrew word for Rome. Edom is related to the Hebrew word “adom”, which means “red”, and to “dam”, which means “blood”. To “adama” which means earth and to “Adam”, the primal first man, and to “damim” which is another name for “money”. All key foundational “pillars” of life in the world as we know it, and to which Esau lays critical claim. The RED in the colors of Rome, and most Western nations who follow it, is the “living symbol” of Esau’s militant and militaristic vibrancy. It is also always laden with the threat of the spilling of “blood” which follows the application of the SWORD. A very frightening picture indeed.
There is no greater durable struggle and rivalry than the constant state of siege and war between Rome and Jerusalem from time immemorial. When Jerusalem in Zion, Jacob’s dwelling, breaks with its Godly mission of being the Light Unto The Nations, then it opens itself to the long-standing “complaints” of Esau who raises the heat with that oldest of mankind’s hatreds: Anti-Semitism. Esau rivals Jacob in his ability to come up with ever novel “solutions” to the Jewish-Jacob-Israel “Question”. It behooves Jacob and his Children the Jews to come up with the “answers” that are needed and that only the Torah provides.
The Torah is compared to Light, and it takes only a Little of the Light to Banish the Darkness. Then with one Jewish tug at the “heels” of Esau, he will, and must, come crashing down and be revealed for the straw man he really is. A tug-of war competition that Jews are assured they will ultimately win.
A good point to conclude at, as we enter the Hebrew month of Kislev and the upcoming holiday of Hanukkah, with its message of how an invincible little Jewish light DID AND DOES shine bright for a long, long time…until Jacob will triumph over Esau completely.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom, Chodesh Tov, and may you be blessed with the powers of Jacob!
Let me know what you think!
[*1] Artscroll Tanach Series, Genesis-Breishis, Hebrew with English commentary, Volume 1(a), pp. 1054-1057.
[*2] The Living Torah, English Translation by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, p. 127.
[*4] Ibid. p.129.