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The Identity Crisis of the Jew
Where it all began
By Yosef Y. Jacobson
A Jew ends up sleeping in the same train compartment as a general of the Russian czar's army. He tells the conductor to wake him up at 4 a.m. so he can get off at his stop. He is awakened at the proper time, yet in the dark he mistakenly puts on the clothes of the general instead of his own.

When he gets home, his wife asks him if everything is all right. He looks in the mirror and answers, "it seems like the conductor woke up the general instead of me."

Chapter One
Non-Jewish observations about Jews

What is the mystery behind the identity crisis lodged deep in the heart of so many Jews today?

The great Russian novelist, Leo Nikolaivitch Tolstoy, best known for his classic "War and Peace," wrote this in 1908 about the Jewish people.

"The Jew is that sacred being who has brought down from heaven the everlasting fire, and has illuminated with it the entire world. He is the religious source, spring and fountain out of which all the rest of the peoples have drawn their beliefs and their religions. The Jew is the emblem of eternity. He, who neither slaughter nor torture of thousands of years could destroy, he who neither fire, nor sword, nor Inquisition was able to wipe off the face of the earth. He, who was the first to produce the Oracles of God. He, who has been for so long the Guardian of Prophecy and has transmitted it to the rest of the world. Such a nation cannot be destroyed. The Jew is as everlasting as Eternity itself (1)."

And here are the words of nineteenth-century American president, John Adams:

"I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize man than any other nation. If I were an atheist, and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that chance had ordered the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations. If I were an atheist to the other sect, who believed or pretended to believe that all is ordered by chance, I should believe that chance has ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization (2)."

And here are the words written by the famous economist and former editor of The London Times, William Rees-Mogg:

"One of the gifts of Jewish culture is that it has taught Christians to think like Jews, and any modern man who has not learned to think as though he were a Jew, can hardly be said to have learned to think at all (3)."

Lastly, a passage by contemporary historian Paul Johnson:

"All the great conceptual discoveries of the intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they have been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time. The Jew has this gift. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without the Jews, it might have been a much emptier place (4)."

Such thoughts are to be found frequently in the writings of great non-Jewish thinkers. But here is the disturbing question: If you were to share the above thoughts with many Jews today, they would most likely view them as arrogant, racist and fundamentalist. What did Tolstoy, Adams and the others feel so acutely that we fail to appreciate within ourselves?

Britain's chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, puts the question in these words: "Why this strange contrast between what non-Jews and Jews have to say about them? Why is it that while non-Jews saw in Jews and Judaism something extraordinary, Jews themselves went to such elaborate lengths to deny it, to claim the virtue of being ordinary, as if it were a rare and special achievement (5)?"

The answer to this, I suggest, can be found in a mysterious and dramatic tale recorded in this week's Torah portion.

Chapter Two
A tale of two brothers

In this week's portion the Bible introduces us to the twin brothers, professing opposite natures, and each appealing to the love of a different parent. Esau was a "skilled hunter, a man of the field," while his brother, Jacob, grew to be "a wholesome man (also translated as a guileless man), a dweller in the tents of study (6)." Jacob's descendants became the nation of Israel, who served as the spiritual and moral compass of the world, while Esau fathered the Edomite nation and ultimately the Roman civilization with its culture of ambition, ruthless power and great material achievement (7).

The deception

"Isaac loved Esau for game was in his mouth," the Bible relates (8). "But Rebecca loved Jacob."

This disparity between husband and wife produces far-reaching implications. As the story in this week's Torah portion progresses (9), Isaac grows old and his eyes become dim. Isaac expresses his desire to bless his beloved son Esau before he dies. While Esau goes off to hunt for his father's favorite food, Rebecca dresses Jacob in Esau's clothes, covers his arms and neck with goatskins to simulate the feel of his hairier brother, prepares a similar dish and sends Jacob to his father with the food.

Jacob receives his father's blessings for "the dew of the heaven and the fat of the land" and mastery over his brother.

Jacob, dressed in Esau's clothes, has taken Esau's blessing and is about to leave. Here the Bible depicts a scene that can literally make you cry (10):

"After Isaac finished blessing him and Jacob had scarcely left his father's presence, his brother Esau came in from hunting. He, too, had prepared some tasty food and brought it to his father. Then he said to him, 'My father, sit up and eat some of my game, so that you may give me your blessing.'

His father Isaac asked him, "Who are you?" "I am your son," he answered, "your firstborn, Esau."

Isaac trembled violently and said, "Who was it, then, that hunted game and brought it to me? I ate it just before you came and I blessed him -- and indeed he will be blessed."

When Esau heard his father's words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, "Bless me -- me too, my father." But he said, "Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing." Esau said, "Is he not rightly named Jacob (Hebrew for heel-grasper), for he has supplanted me these two times: He took my birthright, and now he's taken my blessing."

Then he asked, "Haven't you reserved any blessing for me?" Isaac answered Esau, "I have made him lord over you and have made all his relatives his servants, and I have sustained him with corn and new wine. So what can I possibly do for you, my son?" Esau said to his father, "Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me -- me too, my father." Then Esau wept aloud.

But all Isaac can do for his weeping son is to bless him with some of the fatness of the land and the dew of heaven and predict that his children will live by the sword, and that when Jacob falters, the result will be the forfeiture of his supremacy over Esau. Esau is now determined to kill his brother and Jacob flees Esau's wrath by leaving home.

The questions

This raises seven big questions:

1) How did Isaac and Rebecca allow themselves to grow so far apart in their perception of their children? Did they never discuss their children over dinner and reach some common understanding?
2) Is this the proper way for a woman to behave, to manipulate the situation and contrive a scheme to outsmart her husband's planning? If Rebecca had a good reason as to why Esau was undeserving of his father's blessings, why couldn't she communicate it directly to Isaac? Why couldn't Rebecca "follow" the glorious old tradition of Jewish wives who commonly explain to their husbands how wrong they are?
3) After all of the rationalizations, Jacob's deception of his father and his brother seems immoral and corrupt. The Bible attests that Jacob was "a guileless man, a dweller of the tents of study (6)," in contrast to his twin-brother Esau, who is described as a "skilled hunter, a man of the field." Yet in reality we discover that the reverse is true: Jacob employs cunning and stealth to deceive an unsuspecting brother.
4) If you were Isaac, wouldn't you be very angry with your wife and your son for what they had done? Yet the narrative gives the impression that Isaac was quite content with Rebecca and Jacob's piece of work. Why?
5) In the very next chapter (11) we read how Isaac summons Jacob to him, and grants him a new and profound blessing, one not even hinted to in the series of blessings he gave him in lieu of Esau. "May G-d Almighty bless you," says Isaac, "make you fruitful, and multiply you, and you shall become a populous nation. And may He grant you the blessing of Abraham, to you and your descendants, that you may inherit the land of your dwelling, which G-d has given to Abraham."

This clearly indicates that Isaac never intended to make Esau the father of the people of Israel, never thought to bequeath the Holy Land to him, never considered him heir to "the blessing of Abraham." There were two distinct blessings in Isaac all along that were intended for his two sons: Jacob was to be given the spiritual legacy of Abraham, while Esau was to be granted the blessings of the material world (12).

In light of this, Jacob's behavior seems all the more out of character. Not only did he resort to connivance and trickery to receive his father's blessing, but he did so wholly for material gifts tailor-made for his material brother, while a second, spiritual set of blessings had been reserved for him all along. Why did Jacob not reconcile himself to this division of roles and resources? Why did this "guileless man" dress himself in Esau's clothes, cover his smooth skin with goatskins to feel like his hairy brother in order to fool his blind father's touch and deceive Isaac into granting him the material world as well?

6) In general, the Torah is sparing in its details, especially about the emotional state of its characters. Yet, in this instance, the tale of Esau entering his father's room to find himself deceived by his brother is related with such drama and psychological sensitivity that it instinctively causes us to sympathize with Esau and despise the behavior of Rebecca and Jacob. The scene of Isaac and Esau together, father and son, deceived and disappointed, robbed of what should have been a moment of great tenderness and intimacy (son feeding father, father blessing son) is deeply moving.

It is not that we feel that Esau was the rightful heir of the covenant, that history took a wrong turn, that things should have been otherwise. Manifestly, this is not so. Rebecca favors Jacob for good and just reasons. Esau -- the hunter, the man who "despised his birthright" once he had sold it (13) -- was clearly not destined to be the faithful follower of an invisible, transcendent G-d. The Abrahamic covenant must surely pass through Jacob, the "wholesome man, a dweller in the tents (6)." Why then does the Torah go out of its way, using unusual devices of style, to enlist our sympathies with Esau, to enter his world and see things from his perspective?

7) When stating that Isaac loved Esau, the Torah presents us with a rationale: "Isaac loved Esau for game was in his mouth." But when the Torah records Rebecca's love for Jacob, it offers no reason. Why the difference? If her love of Jacob was unconditional, by the same token she could have loved Esau?

Many more questions can be raised. Let us, however, attempt to explore how we can make sense of this disturbing tale and answer the above questions.

Chapter Three
A tale of two souls

The Kabbalah teaches that the story of Esau and Jacob is not just a tale of two brothers who fought with each other; Esau and Jacob -- like all of the characters in the Bible -- represent two forces in our lives (14). The drama enfolding between Jacob and Esau is a timeless tale continuously occurring in each of our hearts and psyches. Their story is not only a physical episode that occurred at a specific moment in history; it can also be viewed as a metaphor for our own lives.

The first soul, or the Esau soul, is termed the "animal consciousness." This soul is the motor of our physical life and it focuses on the self. Its every act, thought, word and desire is motivated by the quest for self-preservation and self-gratification. At the core of this consciousness stands the sense of "I."

The second consciousness, or the Jacob soul, is defined as the "transcendental consciousness." This soul gravitates to its divine source, striving to become one with the all-pervading truth of G-d. At the core of this consciousness is the sense of "I am not," or rather, "I am one with G-d."

As they both have the same body at their disposal, this makes for the perpetual struggle of life: the struggle between selfishness and selflessness, between idealism and self-centeredness, between our beastly impulses and our spiritual aspirations.

The depth of physicality

Isaac and Rebecca -- again, like all personalities in the Torah -- represent two sides of life: the vision and its implementation. As a true husband and wife, they complemented each other. Isaac was an extraordinary visionary, but it was Rebecca who was keenly aware of how to translate that vision to the real world.

In the world of vision, Esau is in many ways more lovable than Jacob. Just like the physical animal, the human animal, too, possesses a power, an urgency and potency that the divine consciousness lacks. Our beastly cravings and lusts have a mysterious intensity and candidness to them that outshine the spiritual sophistication of the divine soul.

Why is it that the so many spiritual and refined of people succumb easily to an earthly, animalistic craving that comes their way? Why is Esau so much more powerful than Jacob? Why is it so much more difficult to talk to G-d than to talk sports? Why will I forever enjoy a good piece of cheesecake more than a good davening (prayer)?

Because, in truth, the animal soul embodies a deeper and more intense G-dly energy than the divine soul. However, in a process known in Kabbalah as the "primordial explosion," this charged G-dly energy fell very low and assumed the identity of the animal soul that lusts and craves for the physical and mundane. At the core of the animal soul's physical craving lay an intense yearning to reconnect with G-d, disguised by a drive toward materialism.

The marriage of souls

That's why the divine soul must enter into a marriage with the animal soul. Though uniting these souls in a single body exposes both of them to a never-ending battle, it is only through the union of the two souls within a single life, that both can reach their ultimate potential.

The animal soul on its own is a brutish and self-oriented creature. It desperately needs the continuous guidance and discipline of its divine counterpart for cultivation and refinement until it regains its original sublime splendor, as it was in the pre-explosion state. But in this very process, the animal soul grants the divine soul a boundless creativity, a sense of belonging and an atomic passion that it could never attain by its own efforts. It is in the collaboration of the twin souls that man fulfills the objective for which he was created.

That's why Isaac desired to grant the divine blessings to Esau. Though Esau had chosen the "wild life" of promiscuity and beastliness, Isaac believed that this heavy dosage of energy bestowed upon Esau would elevate his animalism to its original pristine state, as it was in the pre-explosion era before it fell so low. Esau would then be able to transform himself from a material hunter to a hunter of the material, employing the zeal and skill of his animal-character as a "man of the field" to discover the profound essence of G-d that lay buried within the physical and mundane landscape of reality. Esau would finally join forces with his spiritual and lofty brother Jacob and together they would integrate heaven and earth.

Vision and implementation

Rebecca did not disagree with Isaac. She knew very well that Isaac was on target when he viewed Esau's spiritual potential as greater than Jacob's. Yet in order to translate Isaac's vision into reality, Rebecca knew that the blessings must be bestowed upon Jacob first. The animal soul on its own has fallen too low to rehabilitate itself. It is only the divine soul that can, in a long and tedious process, sublimate the animal soul and restore it to its primordial majestic condition as it was in the pre-explosion days.

In other words, by creating a situation in which "Jacob," representing the G-dly soul, would receive the blessings instead of "Esau," representing the animal consciousness, Rebecca was ensuring that her husband's idealistic dream would be implemented in reality. If Isaac had bestowed the blessings on Esau directly, his son would have squandered the energy and used it as a drug to further degrade and dehumanize himself. This would be as foolish as giving a drug addict a gift of $10,000 in order to rehabilitate himself, since he most likely will use the money to buy more drugs.

It is only through Jacob that the animal soul of Esau would ultimately be sublimated and refined.

Isaac's lack of awareness

If Rebecca and Isaac are essentially in agreement, merely reflecting two sides of the same truth -- the dream and its implementation -- why couldn't Rebecca share this critical information with her husband, Isaac?

The reason is she would have violated the splendid and authentic vision of her saintly husband. The entire objective here was to grant Jacob the spiritual energy reserved for Esau, so that in due time Jacob could pass it on to his brother. If Isaac had known that it was Jacob who entered the room to receive blessings, the blessings flowing from Isaac's heart would have been Jacob's -- not Esau's -- blessings. If Isaac had known it was Jacob, it would have compromised the pristine and intense Esau energy that needed to be communicated here.

For the divine drama of life -- the marriage of the two souls -- to unfold successfully, Isaac needed to think that it was Esau standing in his presence awaiting the energy flow reserved for his soul.

Jacob assuming a new identity

Now, if Isaac's original vision were to be actualized, Jacob and Esau would live distinct and self-contained lives, each serving G-d in his own unique way. Jacob would live in "heaven" while Esau would reside on "earth." Jacob, the divine soul, would remain aloof and sublime, while Esau, the animal soul, would be challenged to deal with the beastliness and coarse elements of man.

Rebecca, knowing that the only way Esau could ultimately discover G-d was through Jacob's efforts, understood that she needed to prepare Jacob for an entirely new role in life -- to leave the domain of pure spirituality and enter into the Weltanschauung of Esau.

By dressing Jacob in the clothes of Esau, Rebecca was teaching her son the tools he would need in order to refine and sublimate the animal soul of Esau and ultimately allow it to shine with a light greater than Jacob's own light.

For the divine soul to spiritualize its animal counterpart, it must disguise itself in the form of an animal soul. Otherwise, the animal soul would not even bother to listen, much less respond, to its subtle, refined melodies.

Thus is the function of genuine education: Whenever you wish to reach out to children or students whose paradigms of life are of a totally different plateau, you must engage them on their own terms. If you remain stuck in your own lofty space, you will never manage to make a true impact on another person's life.

The prince and the rooster

The following story, told by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, illustrates the point.

In a distant land, a prince lost his mind and imagined himself a rooster. He sought refuge under the table and lived there, naked, refusing to partake of the royal delicacies served in golden dishes. All he wanted and accepted was the grain reserved for the roosters. The king was desperate. He sent for the best physicians, monks, ascetics and miracle-makers; all finally had to admit failure.

One day an unknown sage presented himself at the court, claiming that he might heal the prince. To the surprise of all present, the sage removed his clothes and, joining the prince under the table, began crowing like a rooster. When the prince asked him who he was, the sage responded, "I am a rooster."

The two "roosters" became best friends.

One day, the sage put on a shirt. The prince could not believe his eyes. "Are you crazy?" he asked. "Are you forgetting who you are?" "You know," said the sage, "you mustn't ever believe that a rooster who dresses like a man ceases to be a rooster."

The prince had to agree. The next day they both dressed in a normal way. The sage now sent for some dishes from the palace kitchen and when the prince protested, the sage explained, that "you ought never to think that by eating like man, with man, at his table, does a rooster cease to be what he is."

The prince was convinced. He resumed his life as a prince.

In a similar vein, the divine soul must, to a certain degree, disguise itself as an animal if it is to succeed in restoring the chicken to its princely qualities. The divine soul existing in a human being must engage in acts like eating, sleeping, sports, making money, shopping, intimacy and all other materialistic pursuits of life, so that the animal soul will not feel threatened by it and a window of communication can be opened between the two souls. Now the divine soul has the opportunity to slowly begin reaching out to its animal brother to teach it about a higher vision in life.

So paradoxically, it was only by dressing up like Esau and snatching the blessings from Isaac that Jacob could ultimately pass on these very blessings to his brother.

Chapter Four
Two nations

Just as this is true in the microcosm, it also applies to the macrocosm, to the history of the two civilizations that emerged from Jacob and Esau.

If Isaac's original vision was to be actualized, the Jewish nation, stemming from Jacob and the Edomite/Roman nation coming from Esau would have worked in complete synchronization with each other, each serving G-d in its own unique way.

The Jew, chosen for the rigors -- spiritual and existential -- of the Abrahamic covenant, would have lived the transcendental and spiritual life of "heaven," dwelling in the tents of prayer, meditation and learning. Jacob, naturally, did not have a great feel for the physical dimensions of life; it had almost no appeal to him. Jacob was all soul, his body perceived as a mere technical "servant" designated to fulfill tasks that the soul required in order to live in the world.

In Isaac's original plan, Jacob's descendants would have been, more or less, the same: oblivious to the physical pleasures of life and detached from the power and potency of money, sexuality, politics, sports and the like. Spirituality, ethics, wisdom and transcendence would have been the exclusive components that would have made up the texture of the Jewish consciousness.

The children of Esau would have complemented the Jews significantly: As a people etched in the earthiness of the world, deeply in-tuned with the profound energy existing in the depth of physicality, they would have occupied themselves with discovering the light of G-d within the physical landscape of reality.

That is why all along there were two sets of blessings -- the blessings reserved for Jacob were spiritual in nature, while the blessings reserved for Esau (that were stolen by Jacob) were physical in nature.

The new Jew

This was Isaac's plan. Yet Rebecca knew that this vision, albeit true in the ultimate destiny of history, was now merely a vision. Esau had chosen a different path. Instead of mastering his animal soul and returning it to its authentic origin, he chose to live a life of unbridled passion, plunging him into the abyss. Esau rejected the moral foundations of his father and grandfather, allowing his powerful inner strength to find an outlet within the immoral and nasty lifestyle.

Rebecca, therefore, understood, that at that point in history, Jacob would need to assume a dual role. Not only would he need to uphold his own torch, but he would need to carry the torch of Esau until the latter was emotionally and psychologically ready to assume his original calling.

The moment Rebecca dressed Jacob in the clothes of Esau -- she transformed the psyche and destiny of the Jewish people. Till then, the Jew (Jacob) defined himself exclusively in terms of spirit. The Jew saw himself as a fragment of heaven. Now the Jew would see himself as a creature identical to Esau, a full-fledged member of the rest of civilization, defined by the natural laws and cravings that characterize all human beings.

Chapter Five
The tension

The tension engendered by that fateful act of Rebecca has not been resolved yet in the Jewish world. Some Jews scream: My name is Jacob; stop instructing me to look like Esau! I belong in the yeshiva, in the spiritual oasis of Torah and G-dliness. The outside world is meaningless and inconsequential.

Other Jews speak in a very different voice: "We are essentially like Esau, with only some minor cultural differences. We eat gefilte fish, while they eat shrimp. Let us, once and for all, become fully integrated in the secular world of Esau; let us stop clinging to some mythical fantasy of otherness and chosen-ness and become full-fledged equal members of the family of nations."

There is a lingering resonance in their words. They look at the "clothes" that their mother Rebecca placed upon them, and they see the garments of Esau. Indeed, from the perspective of our clothes, viewing ourselves externally, we are just like Esau: We feel like Esau, we look like Esau and we experience life in a similar way to Esau.     

So who is the Jew? Jacob or Esau?

The Jew is a paradox. He must wear the "garments" of Esau, yet he must remember that he is Jacob. The Jew ought never to confuse his clothes with his true inner identity, as in the opening joke. The Jew must engage the world on its own terms, not because he is essentially part of the world, but because he was charged with the mission of transforming it into a dwelling place for G-dliness and holiness.

The Jew is a bridge chosen not only to soar to the highest of heavens but also to affect the physical plane of reality. The reason the Jew feels so secular and mundane is because he was given the responsibility of communicating the language of heaven to the secular and the mundane, to help Esau remember that he, too, is a son of Isaac and a grandson of Abraham.

That is why the Torah makes sure to have us sympathize with Esau's tears when learning that his brother deceived him. The Jew must always remember that Esau, too, deep down longs for the light of G-d. Esau, at some deep level, is the rightful owner of these blessings. Therefore, ultimately it is the Jew's responsibility to transmit to the world of Esau the blessings he received from Isaac.  

The end of days

Sadly, at the time of Esau's usurped blessing, he was not yet ready for the therapy he needed so desperately in order to reclaim his lost dignity. Instead, he attempted to kill the man who cared for him most: Jacob. That enmity has continued for three millennia. When the microcosmic and macrocosmic Esau learns to look to Jacob for moral direction in life, and Jacob, instead of shunning his true identity, learns to respond to Esau's yearning for help, we will know that Moshiach is at the door.

That time is now.

(This essay is based on the writings of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn and of his son-in-law, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (15)).

E-mail the author at: YYJ@algemeiner.com


1) Quoted in J.H. Hertz, A Book of Jewish Thoughts, Oxford University Press, London, 1926, 135.
2) John Adams to F. A.  Vanderkemp, 16 Febuary 1809, in The World of John Adams, ed. C.F. Adams, vol. 9, pp. 609-10.
3) William Rees Mogg, The Reigning Error, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1974, 11.
4) Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews.
5) Jonathan Sacks, Radical Then, Radical Now, p. 5. I culled part of the above quotes from there.
6) Genesis 25:27.
7) Esau lived in the ancient country of Edom, or Idumaea, southeast of Israel. The relationship between Edom and Rome is a frequent theme in rabbinic literature and explained in Otzar Yisrael (Eisenstein), under the entry of Edom.
8) Genesis 25:28.
9) Ibid. Chapter 27.
10) Ibid. 27:30.
11) Ibid, 28:1-4.
12) See Sforno's commentary on Genesis 27:29; and with much more elaboration -- Shelah on Parashat Toldot.
13) Genesis 25:34.
14) The source of all the concepts discussed below is Tanya first section, based on the writings of master kabbalist Rabbi Chaim Vital. Torah Or Parshas Toldos and Vayishlach. Sefer Halikkutim -- Tzemach Tzedek under the entries of "Yizchak," "Rivkah" and "Yaakov."
15) Sefer Hamaamarim 5703 pp.185-190; Likkutei Sichos vol. 1, pp. 55-56; vol. 3 pp. 795-799; vol. 20 pp. 108-115; Sefer Hasichos 5750 pp. 152-161; pp. 175-183; Sefer Hasichos 5751 pp. 167-177. Cf. references noted in footnote #14.
My gratitude to Shmuel Levin, a writer and editor in Pittsburgh, for his editorial assistance.


Posted on December 1, 2005
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