Toldot: The Difference Between Jacob and Esau

Has our tradition been unfair to Esau?

Table for Five: Toldot

Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

And the youths grew up, and Esau was a man who understood hunting, a man of the field, whereas Jacob was an innocent man, dwelling in tents. Gen. 25:27


Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Am

I love Rashi. I thrill at his moving sermonica emanating from picayune grammatical oddities in a verse. I resonate with his role as rabbi, rather than mere commentator, knowing (hoping?) his words would have an impact on his community. And I am in awe of his prolific production and his encyclopedic mastery of our tradition. And just sometimes, he shows too many of his cards.

Our verse is benign on its face. Two youths grew. One became a hunter, a master of the outdoors. The other was simpler, and lingered in his tent. No value judgment or moral valence is represented by the words themselves. But these are not just two youths. They are Jacob and Esau. In the rabbinic eye, they are Israel and Rome. Our self, and our archenemy. All things good, and all things repulsive. Rashi collapses layers of commentary, and hundreds of years of lived reality, into this verse about growing up: As children, they were similar, but when they “grew up,” one went to study (in tents) and the other hunted after…idolatry. Esau was not just a hunter of game, but rather trapped and deceived with his words. Jacob was simple, in that he refrained from deception [if only!].

Here, Rashi gains and contributes. And he loses, too. He gains another layer of satisfying pride in the people of Israel, still in battle with Esau. And he loses an opportunity to look at two boys, and just see them as they were. And perhaps could still be.


Mrs. Yehudit Garmaise, Journalist, teacher of Pizza and Parsha for women at the Community Shul

Some say that Rivka loved only Yaakov, who sat learning Torah, while Eisav stayed outdoors. However, Rivka, who had been barren for 20 years, must have felt only joyful love for her twins. Rivka, a holy woman, developed her sterling middos, character traitsat a young age, despite a negative upbringing. Rivka probably thought red-haired Eisav was cuter than Elmo and davened continuously for her little cutie to choose a holy, vigorous life that used his kochos, powers, productively for Hashem.

We often find that criminals were unloved as children. If Rivka did not love Eisav, what chance did he have?

Yitzchak knew that Eisav was superficially evil, but also that he contained great sparks of holiness. Yitzchak foresaw not only Eisav’s potential to fight as a fearless, G-dly warrior, but Eisav’s descendent Ovadya, the prophet. Yitzchak believed his blessing could transform his son’s violent nature into one that fought evil, just as red-haired King David later made himself into a holy warrior.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman tells us that Yitzchak, was mistaken in believing that his blessing would elevate Eisav, who was not yet able to use the blessing for good purposes. Rivka understood that Yaakov, who was already pure, should receive the blessing, and in turn, influence and refine his brother Eisav.

We learn from this story that Hashem plants great spiritual power within everyone, even those with spiritual difficulties. We must learn from the righteous: do the work of removing our negativity, cultivate our strengths, and direct our natures creatively toward positivity and holiness.


Dini Coopersmith, Trip Leader and Coordinator, www.reconnectiontrips.com

This verse introduces us to the character differences that appeared between Yaakov and Esav as they matured into young men. Esav was a man of the fields, a ruddy, cunning hunter pursuing physical and materialistic interests, whereas Yaakov was a spiritual scholar who preferred study and the internal work of the soul.

The Netivot Shalom comments on the strange preference of Yitzhak for Esav. Couldn’t he see that Esav was materialistic and deceitful, while Yaakov was spiritual and morally upright? How could Esav be a Patriarch? In fact, he says, both brothers had equal potential initially and Esav could very well have been the better leader. He was immersed in the physical world, but could have elevated that materialism and sanctified it, imbuing it with spirituality, by overcoming his evil inclinations. Yaakov, on the other hand, lived a life of holy pursuits, reserved for the unique few, removed from and disenchanted with the material world.

Of course, Yitzhak knew his sons, but he believed that the ideal path for a Jew is to live in the physical world and to bring God in to our day-to-day activities. One should not remove oneself from the world, and live in an ashram meditating and praying.

In the end, Esav did not actualize this potential for perfection. He became too immersed in the physical world, chose aggression and violence, deceit and immorality. Yaakov, on the other hand, became a man of wholeness and balance. He did engage in the physical world, and worked to perfect it with sanctity and Truth.


Michael Berenbaum, Professor of Jewish Studies, American Jewish University

Jews read the same text each year, even the same commentaries yet see them differently because we are different, and we encounter a different world.

From the womb onward the tension between the fraternal twins is acute. Our tradition is naturally inclined toward Jacob. The Rabbis understand Jacob not so much as a tent-dweller but rather inhabiting the tent of Shem and Ever, studying Torah, modeling and mirroring what they do. Esau’s depiction as a hunter portends for the Rabbis the violence that Jews have experienced from his descendants, our oppressors.

Yet the plain meaning of the Torah passes no judgment on Esau, the hunter. In fact, middle aged Isaac seems to favor Esau, enjoying the fruits of his bounty. Toward the end of his life, he makes a final request of him that is within his skill set. The archetype of Esau is a man of the body and of Jacob a man of the spirit. And yet Isaac’s blessing to the son he thinks is Esau is not one of the body but of the spirit. Rebecca seems to sense that her elderly and blind husband cannot truly see his sons’ character so she deceptively and aggressively intervenes and ensures that Jacob receives the blessing.

Sibling rivalry is matched by parental rivalry and our tradition struggles mightily to find a harmony that is not achieved until the brothers meet decades later. At that point, both are blessed with much – but their harmony is not quite trusted. Is the embrace of these brothers a reconciliation or a trap?


Ilana Wilner, Judaic Studies Teacher, Shalhevet High School

In the pasuk we learn that as the twin boys grew up Esav became a hunter, a man of the field, and Yaakov became a simple man who dwelled in tents. I read simple here not in the sense of limitation but rather of possibility. Yaakov was tam in that he was someone who understood there’s more to learn. Esav on the other hand saw himself as an expert, not needing to learn anything more.

What is even more striking about this is the juxtaposition with the second half of the description of Yaakov as a dweller in tents. Sforno’s interpretation of the plural word “tents” is helpful here. He comments that Yaakov dwelled in multiple tents, one used by shepherds and the other a tent of Torah study. We see Yaakov as being of both the physical and spiritual worlds – a shepherd and a scholar, a learner and an earner. The text says “Yaakov dwelled in tents”; it does not say he dwelled in “this tent” and he dwelled in “that tent” meaning he did more than balance the physical and spiritual world: he blended them. This tells us that Yaakov’s imperative to continue learning applied not just to one aspect of his life but to all. He was committed to continuing his learning both in the professional and spiritual spheres. In this way, Yaakov’s multiple tents didn’t create different lives and separate realities. He was able, through continuous learning, to blend them into a single identity.

With thanks to Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Michael Berenbaum, Yehudit Garmaise, Dina Coopersmith, and Ilana Wilner  

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