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BALANCING THE ESAU AND JACOB WITHIN

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בס”ד

Navigating the Spiritual Journey in a Material World

Genesis 25:


26 And afterward, his brother emerged, and his hand was grasping Esau’s heel, and he named him Jacob. Now Isaac was sixty years old when she gave birth to them.
 כווְאַֽחֲרֵי־כֵ֞ן יָצָ֣א אָחִ֗יו וְיָד֤וֹ אֹחֶ֨זֶת֙ בַּֽעֲקֵ֣ב עֵשָׂ֔ו וַיִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ יַֽעֲקֹ֑ב וְיִצְחָ֛ק בֶּן־שִׁשִּׁ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה בְּלֶ֥דֶת אֹתָֽם:

Jacob grasped the heel (Akev) of his brother, and that’s why he was named Jacob. The verb “akav” translates to “to follow.” Jacob followed Esau after birth, and here there’s no negative connotation to the word but a logical chronological order. Esau is linked with the man of the field, pursuing material pleasure—the earthly, the physical. This contrasts with Jacob, who resided in tents, focusing on Torah study and the spiritual. The Midrash teaches that Rivka noticed this difference even before the children were born. If she passed by the tent of Cham and Eber, Jacob wanted to go there, but if she passed by a tent of idolatry, Esau wanted to go there.

This difference is also reflected in the sale of the birthright, connected to passing on the spiritual legacy of the forefathers.

Genesis 27:


36 And he (Esav) said, “Is it for this reason that he was named Jacob? For he has deceived me twice; he took my birthright, and behold, now he has taken my blessing.” And he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?”
 לווַיֹּ֡אמֶר הֲכִי֩ קָרָ֨א שְׁמ֜וֹ יַֽעֲקֹ֗ב וַיַּעְקְבֵ֨נִי֙ זֶ֣ה פַעֲמַ֔יִם אֶת־בְּכֹֽרָתִ֣י לָקָ֔ח וְהִנֵּ֥ה עַתָּ֖ה לָקַ֣ח בִּרְכָתִ֑י וַיֹּאמַ֕ר הֲלֹֽא־אָצַ֥לְתָּ לִּ֖י בְּרָכָֽה:

Esau didn’t value this, while Jacob did. When a person only values the material and the physical, they end up deceived, as Esau experienced, reflected in the translations of verse 36 accusing Jacob of deceit. The verb “akav” is translated as:

  • to supplant
  • circumvent
  • take by the heel
  • follow at the heel
  • assail insidiously
  • overreach

However well-intentioned Jacob was in becoming the spiritual guardian, he deceived himself. The blessing he received at that moment was primarily a blessing for material success:

“And may the L-rd give you of the dew of the heavens and [of] the fatness of the earth and an abundance of grain and wine. Nations shall serve you, and kingdoms shall bow down to you; you shall be a master over your brothers, and your mother’s sons shall bow down to you. Those who curse you shall be cursed, and those who bless you shall be blessed.” Genesis 27:28-29

But Jacob didn’t desire the fat of the earth, grain, and wine solely for material and physical well-being; he wanted to use them in the service of G-d. This is the blessing he truly wanted and needed, which he later received when he went to the land of Charan:

“And Isaac called Jacob and blessed him . . . ‘And may the Almighty G-d bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, and you shall become an assembly of peoples. And may He give you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your seed with you, that you may inherit the land of your sojournings, which G-d gave to Abraham.'” .Genesis 28:1-4.[1]

We, too, easily succumb to pursuing material and physical pleasure, which doesn’t bring us closer to G-d. As seen with Esau, it may lead us away from G-d and into the danger of idolatry, such as the idol of money or egoism. We shouldn’t seek the blessing that belongs to another, as it will distance us from our divine task instead of helping us perform it well.

Jacob eventually receives the name Israel. Rav Hirsch writes about it[2]:

“Israel, from שרה, one side of the concept ruler, excel, be greater, literally means: G-d is the greater, the one who overcomes everything in power and greatness. This is, in fact, the meaning of the state expressed by יעקב. When a יעקב, someone whose outward appearance is inferior to all others, triumphs over the most hostile attacks and battles of the most materially equipped opponent, this success indicates the presence of a spiritual force heavier than all material greatness and power, the presence of a divine omnipotence that manifests itself in the triumphant endurance of this outwardly weak, and thus must be precisely understood as יעקב ישראל.”

Each of us has an Esau and a Jacob within. Every person begins as a baby, akin to Esau. A baby is focused on the physical world—seeking warmth, sustenance, and security. Over the years, a child must learn to develop more and more spiritually, becoming increasingly like Jacob. For our true purpose on Earth is to build a connection and relationship with G-d. The child, embodying Esau, must learn to dedicate the physical world in service to G-d. Enjoying good food is not an issue as long as one recognizes the Source of the food and expresses gratitude to the Giver.

Jacob exemplifies the use of the physical world in the service of G-d. He employs the soup, animal skins on his arms, and the cloak smelling of the field to safeguard, preserve, and pass on the spiritual legacy of his forefathers. However, he might have needed to question if this approach was the right one. Sometimes, the material world can blind us. Despite our good intentions, we may place too little trust in G-d. We deceive ourselves into thinking that we must do it all on our own, whereas it is G-d who determines our path and blessing to achieve our purpose.

From this story, we can glean several valuable lessons

1. Balancing the Physical and Spiritual: Recognize the inherent Esau and Jacob within yourself, acknowledging the natural inclination towards the physical aspects of life. Strive to strike a balance by progressively developing spiritually, understanding that the ultimate purpose is to build a connection with G-d.

2. Service to G-d in Daily Life: Emulate Jacob’s approach by learning to utilize the physical world in service to God. Understand that enjoying the pleasures of life, such as good food, is acceptable when done with gratitude and a consciousness of the Divine source.

3. Questioning Approaches: Reflect on the methods used in spiritual development. Jacob’s use of the physical world was effective, but there’s room for questioning whether the chosen path is always the most appropriate. Regular self-reflection ensures that spiritual growth remains authentic and aligned with G-d’s intentions.

4. Trust in G-d’s Guidance: Be cautious not to let the material world blind you. Despite good intentions, it’s essential to place trust in G-d and not deceive yourself into thinking that success is solely self-driven. Recognize that God determines the path and blessings needed to fulfill your purpose, and align your actions with divine guidance.


By Angelique Sijbolts


Sources:

[1] The Deception By Menachem Feldman
[2] Rav Hirsch over Tora, Genesis 32:29:1

Rabbeinu Bahya, Bereshit 25:27:2-5

With thanks to Rabbi W. van Dijk for his inspiring question

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