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Look Into My Eyes
Is Esau Evil?
By Yosef Y. Jacobson

 Two Perspectives 

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson go camping together, they put up a tent and go inside to enjoy a tranquil rest near the fire. In middle of the night, Sherlock turns to Dr. Watson and says, "So what are you thinking about now"? Watson responds: "Sherlock! This is awesome. I'm gazing at the celestial stars hovering above us, I'm overwhelmed by the romantic splendor of the night, and I'm engulfed by the picturesque view of the double Decker.

”And what are you thinking about"? asks Watson.

"That someone stole our tent," Sherlock replies.

Diplomacy, Meditation and Conflict

Following thirty-four years of separation from his parents, Jacob sets out with his family to return from Mesopotamia to his home in the Land of Israel. On his way, he learns that his brother Esau is advancing toward him with an imposing army, determined to kill him.

The Biblical narrative in this week's portion (Vayishlach) tells us that Jacob prepared for the confrontation with Esau through a three-pronged strategy of "tribute, prayer and war (1)." Jacob first sent lavish gifts to Esau in the hope of assuaging his wrath, essentially employing the tactic of diplomacy. Next, Jacob engaged in a heartfelt prayer, surrendering himself and his fate to G-d's compassion. Finally, Jacob readied himself and his family for a full-fledged war with Esau.

In reality, however, Jacob’s fears never materialize. When Esau finally appears, he runs to meet Jacob, throws his arms around his neck, kisses him and weeps. There is no anger, animosity or threat of revenge in Esau’s behavior. That is not to say that Jacob’s fears were irrational: Esau had indeed vowed revenge twenty two years before; yet at this moment, a transformation occurs in Esau’s heart. 

The Daily Battle

The stories in the Torah are not just events that occurred at a certain point in history, involving particular characters. They are also reflections of spiritual and emotional episodes that occur continuously in the human heart.

Much of Jewish ethical and mystical works talk of man as a duality: He is a mountain of dust and a vision of G-d; impulsive and reflective; selfish and idealistic. Man is both a villain and a hero.

The twin brothers Jacob and Esau embody, respectively, these polar forces within the human race (2). Esau embodies our self-oriented identity, while Jacob personifies our transcendent soul.

The enmity and rivalry between the siblings reflect the tension and struggle between the two forces in our lives: the struggle between our impulsive lusts and our altruistic yearnings, between what is easy and what is real.

None of us is exempt from this daily confrontation with "Esau." We constantly are overwhelmed with selfish moods, immoral appetites, laziness and fear. The incessant demands of our selfish consciousness present a threat to kill the "Jacob" within us.

How does one deal with these potent forces, which, seemingly, are much more powerful than the holy forces within us? We must employ Jacob's three-step program of diplomacy, prayer and war. 

Honoring Your Animal

First of all, we must grant Esau some of our assets. We have to acknowledge the animal consciousness living within us and honor its presence by granting it its needs. We must eat, sleep, exercise, earn a living and engage in an ongoing relationship with the physical world around us. The animal soul deserves to receive a lavish daily tribute from us, which includes our time, energy and resources.

Yet, how do we ensure that we don't overdo it? How do we guarantee that our daily tributes to the animal identity within us will not place it at the center of our lives, supplanting the spiritual soul as the true core of our identity?

For this, Jacob must engage in prayer. "Rescue me," Jacob prays as Esau approaches, "from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau. I am afraid of him, for he may come and smite me (3)." Why the redundancy "from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau"?

There would be no need to fear Esau's influence if we were detached from the Esau reality, if we were to live as spiritual ascetics. Yet Judaism demands that Esau become our "brother;" that we engage our bodily and animal needs, and that we deal with the physical world around us. Under these conditions, the only way we can ensure that Esau does not dominate and control our lives is through prayer. 

The Gift of Prayer

What is prayer? Just as there is a time to engage the animal soul and pay tribute to its needs and desires, there is a time each day when we let go of our physical identity and enter into the transcendental oasis of our soul. It is the time when we put the ego to sleep and we discover our inner love and spirituality.

All day, we think about our tents; during prayer we focus on the stars, on the splendor and meaning of life.

Have you ever experienced the power of prayer? Sadly, most synagogues are more like cemeteries or chicken markets rather than spiritual islands where one may return home to his soul. That's a pity, because lacking the daily experience of genuine prayer we inevitably become vulnerable to the onslaught from the Esau within (4).

For example, when you don't pray, meditate and connect to your soul in the morning, you often lack the courage and vision to control the food addiction of the Esau-impulse and you engage in an unhealthy breakfast. When you go to the office, you may lack the fortitude to conduct your business affairs honestly. Prayer ensures that the tribute we present to our animal soul does not exhaust us completely till we have nothing left to call our own. 

Under the Knife

Yet, all of the above does not suffice. Jacob must also prepare himself for war. Some of the urges and passions of our animal soul cannot be dealt with through prayer alone. We must declare war against them.

At times during the day or the night, we are overtaken by a powerful, animalistic Esau-like urge that is burning in our hearts like a baker's furnace. At such a moment there is only one thing to do: You must take your fist, punch the impulse in its face and get on with your life. War is a nasty thing, but at times it is our only hope to survive the onslaught of a demon that is determined to kill us (5).

A story:

One of the great Chassidic masters, Reb Simcah Bunam of Pshescah, once remarked that the true definition of a spiritual man is he who always imagines his head lying in a guillotine, his Yatzer Harah (unhealthy inclination) hovering above it, ready to chop off his head at a moment's call.

"But Rebbe," asked one of the Chassidim, "what if one does not have that feeling?" "In that case," the Rebbe responded, "his head has been chopped off already (6)."

A Face

Yet this is not all. When Esau and Jacob ultimately meet, something else occurs: They embrace.

What is more, when Esau at first refuses the gifts Jacob prepared for him, Jacob replies in the following extraordinary words:

“No, please, if I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from my hand, for to see your face is like seeing the face of G-d.” These are powerful terms he is using in regard to Esau: his face reflects the face of G-d.

Indeed, earlier in describing why Jacob wanted to send gifts to Esau, the Bible states: “For he (Jacob) thought, ‘I will wipe the anger from his face with the gift that goes ahead of my face; afterward, when I see his face perhaps he will lift up my face”. 

Why the great emphasis on “face”?

There is a profound message here. It is true that much of Jewish ethics and mysticism talks of the duality of the human being; of the fragmentation and dichotomy at the heart of the human condition. Jacob and Esau are rivals. Yet, on a deeper level, the mystics understood that in the final analysis, there is unity at the core of the human soul. Because in its profoundest reality, the animal soul too craves G-d; it simply doesn’t know how to express its craving.

If you can only have the courage to gaze into Esau’s “face,” not just to see his external expression, but to look deeply into Esau’s eyes, you will observe, that Esau deep down craves to place its mouth on the mouth of his brother Jacob and declare together: G-d is One.


1) Rashi, Genesis 32:9, quoting Midrash Tanchumah.
2) See my essay "A Tale of Two Brothers" (Issue #5, 2000) and references cited there.
3) Genesis 32:12.
4) See Tanya chapters 12 and 28.
5) See Rashi to Talmud Berochos 5a. Tanya chapters 12, 27, 29.
6) This essay is based on the writings of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, briefly transcribed in "LeTorah U'lmoadim" (by Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin) p. 46 and on a discourse by Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, Parshas Vayishlach 5627 (1866).

Posted on December 15, 2006
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