The Relationship Between Yaakov and Esav that Could Have Been

By: Shmuel Reichman

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts Concept

There was an elderly carpenter who was ready to retire. He told his boss of his plans to leave the house-building industry in order to enjoy a more leisurely lifestyle with his wife. He would miss the weekly paycheck, but he was ready to retire, and they could get by on his savings. The contractor was sorry to see his best worker go, and asked if the carpenter could build just one more house as a personal favor to him. The carpenter was reluctant, as he really was ready to retire, but the contractor pushed him until he relented. However, it soon became clear that his heart was just not in it. He resorted to shoddy, quick workmanship and used inferior materials. It was an unfortunate way to end a dedicated career. When the carpenter finished his work, his boss came to inspect the house. He then handed the front-door key to the carpenter and said, “This is your house, as my parting gift to you.”


The carpenter was shocked! If only he had known he was building his own house, he would have invested so much more effort. 

The same is true with our lives as well. Through every day and every action we are building our own home, our eternal existence. The mind we’re building, the views we attach ourselves to, the thoughts we generate- this is the reality we choose to live in. If we were aware of this, we would be so much more careful with how we laid down each brick. Let us take a deeper look into this week’s parsha, Vayeitzei, and see how this idea connects to Yaakov Avinu’s role in this world.

Yaakov and Esav

Rashi (Bereishis 25:22) brings down the famous midrash, which describes the battle that transpired between Yaakov and Esav in the womb. Whenever their mother, Rivka, passed a place of Torah study, Yaakov was drawn towards it, and when she passed a house of idol worship, Esav was drawn towards it. Yaakov desired the spiritual and Olam Habah- the World to Come, while Esav desired the physical and Olam Hazeh, the physical world. This was the cosmic battle that took place within Rivka’s womb.


The Obvious Problem


The problem with this “battle”, however, is quite obvious. If Yaakov wanted the spiritual, and Esav desired the physical, where is the point of contention? This is not a battle- they can simply each take what they desire, without any need for argument or disagreement. There’s nothing to fight over.


For example, if there are two cups of ice cream, chocolate and vanilla, and one sibling wants chocolate while the other craves vanilla, then surely there is no argument! They are actually in agreement- each can simply take what they desire. An argument would arise only if there was one cup of ice cream and they both want it. What, then, what was the fight between Yaakov and Esav about?


Yaakov and Esav

In order to understand the depth of this battle, we must understand the concepts of ikar and tafel, the essence (ikar) and the enabler of that essence (tafel).“Ikar” is the inner essence and the main entity, while the tafel is what enables the ikar to flourish. For example, the ikar of an orange is the inner fruit while the peel is the tafel, as it enables and protects the fruit. The same principle applies to a person; the ikar of a person is the neshama, the self, the mind and soul. The body is the tafel, as it enables the soul to exist in this world, to learn, grow, and expand.

The ideal is for the tafel (that which is secondary and lower) to perfectly and loyally reflect the ikar (the inner spiritual essence), for the body to loyally reflect the truth and depth of the soul, for the physical to be a loyal vessel, fully reflecting its spiritual root. The body is meant to be the vehicle which carries the soul though the world. We don’t believe in rejecting the physical, but we don’t wish to get stuck in the physical either. The goal is a beautiful, nuanced balance, where the physical is used to reflect something higher, the spiritual. In this perfect balance, the wisdom and ideas of Torah become one with you, and you express that inner depth through the physical. This is why almost all the mitzvos are done through physical actions. This was the very battle between Yaakov and Esav, a battle over what is primary and what is secondary.


Yaakov vs. Esav


Both Yaakov and Esav wanted the spiritual and the physical, and this was the root of their battle. Yaakov wanted to use the physical as a vehicle for the spiritual, as a tool to fully utilize and actualize spiritual potential. Esav, on the other hand, sought to use the animation of the spirit and soul to experience the pleasures of the physical. In other words, Esav flipped the ikar and tafel; he viewed the physical as ikar (main) and the spiritual as tafel (secondary), a necessary means towards experiencing the physical world. Esav did not wish to use the physical to reflect anything higher than his own selfish desires. This was the battle between Yaakov and Esav, a battle of perception, a battle of ikar versus tafel.


The Relationship That Could Have Been


Originally, Yaakov and Esav were meant to work together, harmoniously, as a synthesized duo, converging perfectly in a unique partnership. Yaakov was meant to perfect the spiritual, the ikar, while Esav was meant to perfect the physical, the tafel, creating a perfect vessel for Yaakov. Together, they would have converged to become a single unit, working as one. The spiritual (Yaakov) was meant to imbue and fully manifest within the physical (Esav). 


Yitzchak saw this potential within Esav, which is why he sought to give him the brachos (blessings). However, a careful reading of the Torah makes it clear that Yitzchak intended to give both Yaakov and Esav brachos, one for the spiritual domain and one for the physical domain. This is why Yitzchak gave Yaakov two sets of brachos – the one intended for Esav (which Yaakov bought), and the one he always planned to give Yaakov (mentioned at the end of Parshas Toldos). Yitzchak always planned to give Yaakov the bracha of the spiritual domain; it was only the bracha of the physical domain that he intended to give Esav. This was a recognition of Yaakov and Esav’s unique roles- Esav as the physical vessel, and Yaakov as the spiritual essence.


However, Esav corrupted his mission, and instead of perfecting the physical as a loyal vessel for the spiritual, he isolated the physical as an ends in itself, completely disconnecting it from the spiritual. When Yaakov saw this, he realized that Esav wouldn’t fulfill his part of their partnership, and therefore decided to intervene and buy Esav’s role, the bechora, as well. As a result, Yaakov now became responsible for both aspects of their partnership: perfecting the spiritual and perfecting the physical, making it a loyal vehicle to express the spiritual.


With this in mind, Yaakov’s statement to Yitzchak- “I am Esav, your firstborn”- was actually true. Yaakov did not lie to Yitzchak, rather he revealed a deep truth. Yaakov had undergone an existential metamorphosis. He took on Esav’s role, and in a deep way, became Esav. In respect to his spiritual role, Yaakov was now both Yaakov and Esav. Yaakov, the pillar of truth, didn’t lie to Yitzchak; he revealed the inner truth of this new spiritual reality, his new spiritual role. [It is important to note that Esav still has an opportunity to play an important role in the world. For example, R’ Yehuda Ha’Nasi (from Yaakov) had this ideal relationship with Antoninus (from Esav/Rome).] 


Yaakov, Rachel, and Leah


This idea completely transforms our perception of Yaakov’s relationship with Rachel and Leah. As Rashi explains, Rachel was destined to marry Yaakov, and Leah was meant to marry Esav, which is why she constantly cried. However, Yaakov ends up marrying both Rachel and Leah, a manifestation of the exact idea we are discussing. 


Marriage is an existential bond where two opposites combine and melt into a harmonious oneness. Each maintains their sense of individuality, and yet simultaneously, finds themselves within a whole greater than the sum of the two parts.  Esav was completely physical, and was meant to marry a woman who was completely spiritual, Leah. She was a completely spiritual woman, and was destined to help Esav manifest control over the physical world, in order to perfect it and prepare it for Yaakov. Esav, the oldest son, was meant to marry Leah, the oldest daughter.


The same dynamic applied to Yaakov and Rachel. Yaakov, who was completely spiritual [“Ish tam yoshev b’ohelim” (Bereishit 25:27)], was destined to marry Rachel, who was completely physical. Rachel reflected the perfection of physicality, and was supposed to help Yaakov bring down that spiritual potential into the physical.  This is why Rachel is described as physically beautiful, and also why Yosef, their son, is the only male in the Torah who is described as physically beautiful. (In Tanach, Avshalom and Adoniyahu are also classified as such, which requires a deeper discussion). Rachel’s physical beauty reflected her spiritual role, as she was meant to convey the fact that she loyally reflected her higher and spiritual self, her neshama, though her physical body. Yaakov, the youngest, was meant to marry Rachel, the youngest.


Change of Plans


However, as Esav continued down the wrong path, Yaakov and Rivka saw that he wouldn’t play the role he was meant to. As such, the plan had to change. Once Yaakov bought the bechora from Esav, he took over both roles; he became both Yaakov and Esav. Accordingly, he now had to marry both Rachel and Leah! The Yaakov in him had to marry Rachel, and the Esav in him had to marry Leah. Consequently, when Lavan tricked Yaakov, it wasn’t regarding his marriage to Leah, but only the order in which he would marry her. Instead of marrying Rachel first, he was tricked into marrying Leah first. But he was meant to marry Leah all along!


Yisachar and Zevulun


We can now understand the unique relationship between Yisachar and Zevulun as well. Originally, this was meant to be the relationship between Yaakov and Esav. Yaakov would devote his life to the spiritual root, and Esav would devote his life to bring that down into the physical, to actualize that spiritual potential. Yaakov would have been Yisachar, while Esav would have been Zevulun. However, once Esav messed up, both of those roles were now Yaakov’s. Yisachar and Zevulun now represent this relationship, both playing their unique role in this world, both sharing an equal share in the reward.


We can ask, however: why did both Yesachar and Zevulun come from Leah? Shouldn’t one of them have come from Rachel? I would like to suggest an answer which I think beautifully reflects everything we’ve discussed so far. Originally, Yaakov was meant to have Yisachar with Rachel, as this was meant to represent the role of perfecting the spiritual, while Esav was meant to have Zevulun with Leah, as this was meant to represent the role of perfecting the physical. However, once Yaakov took over Esav’s role, he was meant to have both Yisachar and Zevulun: Yisachar with Rachel and Zevulun with Leah. Yet, we find a fascinating and enigmatic scene that takes place between Rachel and Leah. After having difficulty conceiving more children, Rachel sold her right to be Yaakov to Leah for the duda’im, in the hopes that it would help her become pregnant later on. What happened right after this sale? Who was born? The very next passuk tells us that Leah had Yisachar and Zevulun! In other words, in return for the duda’im, Rachel sold her rights to have Yisachar. Leah now became the mother of both Yisachar and Zevulun! Soon afterwards, Rachel was zocheh to have Binyamin. 


Our Role


We get to choose how we live our lives, how we see the world. We get to choose how to use the physical world. We need to ask ourselves: “What kind of house are we building?” Are we building a broken, sloppy, and flimsy house? Or are we building something beautiful, majestic, and profound; a physical structure that fully and loyally reflects its spiritual root? Let’s follow in Yaakov’s footsteps, let’s find our unique role within the Yisachar and Zevulun partnership, and let’s focus on harmony, synthesis, and oneness, as opposed to machlokes, breakdown, and turmoil. Our life is like building a skyscraper, a masterpiece; it’s the result of every brick we lay down. Every day is another brick, another opportunity to add to our eternal home, our eternal self, our eternal existence.