Jacob good, Esau bad. This is the dichotomy we place upon these twins, about whom we read in Toledot, this week’s Torah portion.
While Esau is the wild man of the fields, the hunter who consorts with Hittite women, Jacob is tam, wholehearted, and yosheiv ohalim, the one who dwells in tents and, according to our sages, anachronistically studies Torah.
Jacob becomes our patriarch, a leader of our people, a hero. He earns a new name, “Israel,” the father of the 12 tribes.
Torah depicts Esau as doing well for himself too. He leads a mighty retinue and, during his last encounter with Jacob, he is gracious.
But our tradition still sees him as wicked and, most importantly, as the progenitor of Rome. The armies of Rome destroyed the Temple, built on the very spot Jacob dreamt of angels ascending and descending the ladder. In a sense, then, the Roman sacking of the Temple was not only a tragedy for our people, but also Esau’s ultimate posthumous revenge against Jacob.
Could it have been otherwise? Could Esau have been anything other than a rasha, a wicked one? Yes, according to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (German, 19th century). In his Torah commentary, Rabbi Hirsch posits that Esau’s famous flaws were the result not only of nature, but also of nurture. He quotes Proverbs 22-6 – “Educate each child according to his or her own derekh, or path.”
Hirsch writes, “Had [parents] Isaac and Rebecca studied Esau’s nature and asked themselves…how even an Esau…could be won for endeavors in the service of God… that mighty man would not become [merely] a mighty hunter, but truly a mighty man before G-d.” If Esau had been thoughtfully educated by his parents, he and Jacob could have joined forces. “Who knows,” Hirsch asks, “what a different turn all of history would have taken?”
It is not enough that we have children. We must know our children, discerning their natures and helping them discover their own paths – not their siblings’ paths, and not their parents’ paths. If we are successful, our children may indeed harness their unique talents for holy purposes.
Rabbi Jeffrey Weill