Using Strength In the Right Way

November 20, 2011

7 min read


Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9 )

"And Isaac loved Esau for game was in his mouth, but Rebecca loved Jacob."(1)

One of the most difficult aspects of Toldos is Isaac's preference for Esau over Jacob. How could such a great man as Isaac believe that Esau was virtuous and more fitting to receive the blessings than his righteous brother? The Be'er Yosef offers an interesting approach to these issues.(2) He explains that there are two types of righteous people. One is a person whose natural character traits are very refined and pure. The other, is one whose natural tendencies are negative, and therefore has to work hard to overcome his yetser hara (evil inclination). He quotes the Yaavetz, who states that the person whose natural inclination is negative is greater.(3)

He explains further that Isaac believed both his sons were tzaddikim (righteous), however, he saw that Jacob was the kind of tzaddik who is born with a natural leaning to good character traits, whereas, Esau was an example of a tzaddik who had to overcome his yetser hara. Isaac's mistake was that he believed Esau had successfully overcome his natural tendencies, where in truth, they had overcome him, driving him on a course of destruction. How could Isaac be blind to Esau's true character?

The Be'er Yosef continues that Isaac recognized that Esau was born with the sign of redness, which the gemara tells us is an indication of a bloodthirsty nature. The gemara says that one who is born with this tendency will direct his energies to some form of activity related to spilling blood.(4) If he applies it in a negative way, he will be a thief, however if he directs it positively he will be a shochet (5) or a mohel (6). Esau became a hunter which the Be'er Yosef equates with a shochet. Isaac viewed this as being Esau's way of channeling his violent tendencies to a positive use. Moreover, he used his hunting to fulfill the Mitzva of honoring one's father, by providing Isaac with food. In this way, Isaac believed that Esau had reached a level of righteousness that was greater than that of Jacob. He saw that Jacob's natural leanings were towards righteousness, therefore Yaakov was less meritorious than Esau, whom, Isaac believed, had overcome his yetser hara to become a tzaddik.

It is possible to further develop this idea that Isaac preferred Esau's perceived form of righteousness. It is well-known that each of the Avos (Forefathers) excelled in one particular character trait. Abraham's trait was chessed (kindness), Isaac's was gevura (strength),(7) and that of Jacob was emes (truth).(8) The commentaries(9) explain that both Abraham and Isaac bore sons who also had a leaning to the same trait as them, however, they misused that trait, and therefore it became expressed in a negative way. Ishmael epitomized misuse of the trait of chessed,(10) whereas Esau personified the misapplication of gevura. It is instructive to analyze more deeply, the positive aspect of gevura embodied by Isaac, and contrast it to its negative application by Esau.

Isaac exercised great internal strength throughout his life. His strength was in his ability to conquer any negative inclinations that he may have had, and to nullify his own selfish desires and needs. This resulted in a great level of self-discipline and pure Avodas HaShem whereby Isaac's whole being was fulfilled solely to fulfilling God's will. Isaac saw in Esau the potential to also excel in this trait, and perhaps even to develop it further than Isaac could. As the Be'er Yosef explained, Isaac saw that Esau had powerful inclinations driving him towards evil, however he felt that if Esau used his natural gevura in the correct way, he could excel greatly in that trait. However, Isaac did not realize that Esau directed his gevura for selfish purposes. Instead of utilizing it in the correct way, by controlling himself, Esau used it to control others. Rather than expressing his power through self-discipline, he did it through dominating and overpowering other people. This is most obviously apparent in his profession of hunting, which involved overcoming mighty animals. Moreover, Rashi tells us that Esau was a murderer.(11) Needless to say, Esau paid no heed to strengthening himself internally to control himself, rather the sources tell us that he was extremely immoral.(12)

Esau's descendants, in particular, the Romans, emulated him in their misuse of the trait of gevura. They were a nation bent on conquering the world for the sake of having immense power. Moreover, like Esau, they had absolutely no interest in the internal strength that involved self-control, rather they were extremely immoral in their lifestyle.

We have seen how Isaac excelled in the trait of gevura, and that he believed that his son Esau could also exercise this trait to overcome his natural inclinations. However, Esau chose to use his gevura to further his own desires and dominate others. The Torah outlook clearly emphasizes the value of self-control, and deemphasizes the importance of external power. This is most clearly demonstrated in the Mishna in Pirkei Avot.(13) "Who is strong? He who subdues his inclination, as it says, 'He who is slow to anger is better than the strong man, and a master of passions is better than a conqueror of a city.' " (14) We learn from here that the strength that the Torah acclaims is that which Isaac excelled in - overcoming one's natural inclinations in order to do God's will. This form of power, the Mishna tells us, is what we should aspire to.

It is true that just as the Forefathers made particular emphasis on one particular trait, so too each person naturally leans to one such trait. Nevertheless, it is also clear that no matter what one's natural inclination is, each person needs to express all these traits at some points. Thus, each person must apply the lessons with regard to gevura to his own life. We see from the contrast between Esau and Isaac, that one must be very careful to express the trait of gevura in the correct way. It is far easier to apply it in the wrong fashion, using it to dominate or control other people. It is far more difficult, but ultimately far more rewarding, to control oneself. A person who dominates others will still feel himself a slave to his passions, and satisfying these passions will never provide him with true contentment. Whereas, one who has true self-control of himself, can be free to express himself in the optimum fashion.



1. Bereishis, 25:28.

2. Be'er Yosef, p.71.

3. See there for the opinon of the Rambam in Shemoneh Perakim, Ch.6 with regard to this issue.

4. Shabbos, 156a.

5. One who slaughters animals.

6. One who performs circumcision.

7. Also described as din (strictness), and pachad (fear). All relate to the same idea that will be discussed shortly.

8. Also related to as Torah, and tiferes (translated as splendor or harmony).

9. See Pri Tzadik, Bamidbar l'chag haShavuos, dh:beyircha on this issue.

10. See my essay on Parshas Kedoshim, 'Understanding the True Meaning of Chessed,' for discussion of how Ishmael misused the trait of chessed.

11. Rashi, Bereishis, 25:28.

12. Bereishis Rabbah, 65:1.

13. Avos, 4:1.



14. Mishlei, 16:32.

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