The Urge to Sin

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG-13

After twenty years of marriage, Rebecca finally conceived. However, her many years of praying and yearning for children did not prepare her for what followed. Twins! And they weren’t docile ones – not even in the womb. In this week’s Parshah of Toldot, the Torah describes her pregnancy as follows: “And the children struggled within her, and she said, ‘If it be so, why am I like this?'” Genesis, 25:22.

According to the Midrash, the struggling within her was not simply the two boys jostling for a more comfortable position in her stomach. Rather, “when she passed by the entrances of the Torah academies of Shem and Eber, Jacob would run and struggle to come out; when she passed the entrance of a temple of idolatry, Esau would run and struggle to come out.” Genesis Rabbah, 63:6. Another Midrash explains that “they were struggling with each other and quarreling about the inheritance of the two worlds.”

Now let’s consider this:

Esau has not even been born yet, and already his reputation precedes him. When he turned 15, the Midrash says that he committed his first murder. Genesis Rabbah, 63:12. When he turned 40, he married; however, the Midrash says that this was a deceptive action and an empty milestone, as “during the entire forty years, Esau kidnapped wives from their husbands and violated them. When he was forty years old, he said: ‘My father married at forty; I, too, will do the same.'” Genesis Rabbah, 65:1. That’s four decades of philandering, womanizing, and taking other men’s wives.

(Incidentally, I came across a recent study saying that men with facial hair are more likely to be sexist, to get into fights, to cheat and to steal. And I saw someone else point out that Esau emerged from the womb “completely like a coat of hair” (Genesis, 25:25) and even Jacob remarked to his mother the “my brother Esau is a hairy man, whereas I am a smooth man (Genesis 27:11). So go figure.)

Obviously, it is an exaggeration to state that Esau committed adultery for 40 years straight, as he was only 40 years old, and he certainly wasn’t committing adultery as a baby. But it does beg the question: When did Esau start sinning? Could he possibly have been “bad from the womb”? What kind of justice could there be in stacking the odds against a child from before birth, so that a life of wickedness is predetermined? If he was already lurching for idol-worship before he was even born, what chance did the poor tyke ever have?

And another question: Why would Esau and Jacob be “struggling…over the inheritance of the two worlds”? It seems that if Esau was predisposed towards wickedness, and Jacob was predisposed towards righteousness, then there ought to have been no struggle at all. Jacob would willingly offer Esau this world, and Esau would willingly offer Jacob the next. What were they actually fighting over?

A more contemporary commentary provides the following profound insight:

There are generally two types of people: the naturally-refined person, and the struggler. The naturally-refined person doesn’t have a very difficult time resisting his baser impulses, to the extent that he or she has them at all. Being good comes easy. The struggler, on the other hand, is “blessed” with a very robust and active animal inclination and instinct. He wants to indulge his urges; temptation is constantly fluttering at the edges of his senses, like the wings of a moth around a light. And he needs to maintain constant vigilance to resist succumbing to that temptation. And sometimes he fails and falls – but then he girds himself against the next attack.

Since our patriarchs were intended to be archetypes for their offspring, a template from which we, their children, are formatted. So if they were our archetypes, it’s easy to find the source for the naturally-refined person among them – they all seem to be pretty righteous. But where among them do we find the more common model, the struggler, who is constantly at war with his urges?

And the answer is Isaac and Rebecca. Isaac had two aspects within himself; two sets of potential that manifested in his two sons, Jacob and Esau. Jacob reflected the part of Isaac that was a natural goody-two-shoes. The part of him that had no struggle with baser elements; that was not constantly at war with himself. But he had another aspect to his personality, buried deep within, which manifested in Esau. This was the side of him that was susceptible to temptation, and that had to struggle to resist it.

Thus, when Esau is conceived, he immediately evidences this struggle; a fight that existed within Isaac in only a state of potential, emerges in Esau as a full-fledged raging battle, in which the slightest provocation and trigger has Esau lurching this way and that. Throughout his childhood years, this was Esau’s position and role: acting as the manifestation of the “Struggler” archetype, a foreshadowing of the millions of Isaac’s descendants that would embody that same character.

However, struggling is itself a righteous mission; it means that we care; that we haven’t given up; that we are still devoted and determined to illuminate the darkness, and not surrender to it. This is why when baby Jacob said “I’ll take the World to Come,” baby Esau growled back: “To hell you will – what do you think the whole point of all my struggling is?” In fact, this is why “Isaac loved Esau” (Genesis, 25:28), and why, even later, Isaac wanted to bequeath the blessings to Esau, and not Jacob (see Genesis, 27:1-4). Isaac loved this darker manifestation of himself, and the novelty of overcoming a war with our own nature.

And so long as Abraham lived, lending his righteous influence to his grandchildren, Esau was successful in resisting the dark side of his nature. Unfortunately, when Abraham passed and Esau matured, he caved, completely and utterly, to his dark inclination, and lost the war. The struggler was defeated. That, however, is not intended to be the model for the rest of us strugglers. We still look up to baby Esau, and keep on fighting.

Shabbat Shalom!