By Rabbi Dan Lewin
This week’s Torah reading is entitled Toldot — “children.” The theme is struggle. First, we read how children don’t always turn out the way parents want. A feud between brothers, Yaakov and Eisav, over their inheritance turns ugly. And if there was ever an indication for nature over nurture within Torah — this is the portion.
The tension between the two brothers begins in the womb — “the children struggled inside her (Gen. 25:22).” The midrashic interpretation of this verse is that they had opposite inclinations. “When their mother Rivkah walked near a place of sacred study, Yaakov struggled to come out. When she passed a temple of idol worship, Eisav got excited. Furthermore, this clash in values concerns not only a family but generations of their descendants. “There are two nations in your womb,” a wise man revealed to her with prophecy.
As the children grew, it becomes clearer that one son is naturally inclined toward goodness, the other toward destruction. Yaakov is described as “a humble man, dwelling in tents” — a pious scholar. Eisav is a “man of the field,” a deceitful child who while showing his father a kind face — displaying tremendous care and respect at home — becomes a brute thief and murderer in the outside world.
A common understanding of the story is the stereotypical golden child versus the black sheep of the family; Yaakov was born pure, a person of perfection and refinement while his twin nemesis was a rough and untamed villain who was destined to go astray. But the story can be seen from a different angle wherein the tendency toward immoral behavior is not itself bad.
Sweet and sour
Maimonides, in his Jewish philosophical work, explains that “there are two general categories of people: a refined person of noble spirit and someone who must constantly struggle to overcome negative tendencies.” Each character type serves a different purpose and has advantages. Or from the mystical angle, each brings a different kind of pleasure to G-d.
Only a select few reach the level of “a noble person” smoothly. Most people fall into the second category, needing to engage in a lifelong effort to refine their character. And from a Jewish perspective, this character imperfection is by design. It also highlights the unique quality of a human being:
Unlike other creatures, we are not bound by our innate inclinations. With resolve and determination we can bend, or even transform, our nature. [To be sure, almost any animal can be tamed or trained through reward and punishment, but its basic character still remains. This same limitation even applies to the highest spiritual creatures and angels, those termed omdim — “stationary beings”—in the sense that they do not mature and alter their nature. In contrast, human beings are called mehalchim — “travelers” — for although they can fall, they can also learn from mistakes and continue to progress.]
The potential for transformation
In an imperfect world, flawed people cause suffering to themselves and others. But in the moral and spiritual arena, success is not always clear-cut. How someone is judged may depend on the struggle it took to achieve the result. Though there is a general well-defined moral line distinguishing between certain good and bad actions, in some contexts, being “good” can mean improvement through effort. “Bad,” on the other hand, can mean lack of growth, becoming too comfortable with (or oblivious to) personal shortcomings.
In the mystical discussions of our duality — the tug of war between an evil inclination and a divine soul —the tendency toward negative behavior or habits may be the stronger guiding force. The same can be said on a global scale. But if that energy is refined and redirected, it produces amazing results.
Returning to our parsha, the commentaries explain that within Eisav’s untamed and chaotic temperament lay enormous potential for achievement, even greater than his refined brother whose internal flame burned with less rage. This idea echoes the famous statement in the Talmud: “the greater the person (one’s positive potential), the greater one’s negative tendencies.”
Stealing the blessings
This also answers a major question in the narrative. As Yitzhak grows old and blind, he expresses his desire to bless Esaiv before he dies with the famous “dew of the heaven and the fat of the land.” In the end, their mother Rivkah tells Yaakov to dress in Eisav’s clothes and he receives the blessings instead. But the question remains: what was Yitzhak (Isaac) thinking? Why did he want to give the most precious blessings to Eisav — a wild destructive person whose descendants symbolize the prime antagonists of the Jewish people?
Some may suggest that it was Yitzhak’s (metaphorical) blindness, a father’s love preventing him from seeing Eisav’s flaws? Or perhaps because Eisav excelled in honoring Yitzhak he was partial. But Yitzhak is not a regular person or parent. He knows the truth and the power of blessings.
A deeper explanation is that Yitzhak thought that perhaps these powerful blessings that he, as our patriarch, could impart would give Eisav the strength to turn his life around. More specifically, in light of the above discussion of “good” and “evil,” Eisav possessed tremendous potential, if harnessed through free choice. He ended up making the wrong decisions, but his essence was good. And Yitzhak wanted to reveal this potential through giving the blessings.
Two main messages emerge from the above: First, there is purpose and potential within a negative inclination. Second, the struggle to improve oneself is valuable. Everyone has different internal challenges to overcome. For some, growth involves relatively minor character adjustments, such as being less self-centered or envious. For others, change involves bigger tests such as overcoming depression or addiction; they must constantly struggle just to reach the starting point of another.
We must work with what we’re given while appreciating that there is deeper value in the struggle. And while society’s judgments may be more centered on objective results, in the spiritual realm accurate assessment takes into account effort and personal progress. In this context, one act of kindness, a simple mitzvah, performed out of one’s comfort zone can be worth more than an abundance of good deeds done routinely.
The same theme can be applied to judging others. It is difficult to “judge every person favorably.” But our perspective broadens when effort and potential are kept in mind. Since we can never know the inner struggle of another, it is advisable to be more cautious in labeling. Finally, when educating a child, the praise bestowed should ideally depend on the achievement relative to abilities and effort — not purely performance based. A “difficult child” is often a misunderstood child. If the parent and educator can channel the chaotic energy properly, there is often potential for tremendous accomplishment.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.