First War of the Worlds

June 23, 2009

15 min read


Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9 )

The relationship between Jacob and Esau is a recurrent theme throughout the Bible, but the Torah presents us with only two face-to-face meetings between the brothers. The first of these, the famous scene that describes the sale of Esau's birthright for the mess of pottage, occurs in this week's Parsha.

Esau explains the philosophy of life that prompted him to make the sale: I am going to die anyway, so why do I need the rights of the first born?

At first glance, this seems like a bizarre reason for belittling one's birthright that entails a greater share in the parents' estate devolving to the first born under Torah inheritance laws. The Rabbis were directed by the apparent difficulty to a deeper interpretation of the transaction involved.


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When Jacob and Esau were still in the womb, Jacob said to Esau, "Brother, there are two worlds out there awaiting us, this world, and the world to come. This world contains eating and drinking, business, marriage, having children, whereas the next world has none of these aspects. If you're agreeable, I will take the next world and you can have this one, as it is written, "Sell as this day, your birthright to me." 'As this day', refers to the day they had this same conversation in the womb. Esau immediately denied the concept of the resurrection of the dead, as it is written, "Look I am going to die, so of what use to me is a birthright?" At that time it was decided: Esau took as his share this world whereas Jacob took the world to come. (Yalkut, Toldos,111)

Thus, in the view of the Midrash, the transaction between Jacob and Esau involved trading worlds -- Esau ended up with this world whereas Jacob got the next. But it really can't be all that simple for Jacob needs to have this world in order to get to the next one, and Esau is not so ready to part with the next world either.

According to Jewish tradition we are presently in the Diaspora of Edom, the last of the four Diasporas, the one immediately preceding the arrival of the Messiah. The Torah tells us that Esau is synonymous with Edom. And these are the descendants of Esau, he is Edom. (Genesis 38:1) This Diaspora is also known as the Roman Diaspora. It began with the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans, and the cultural/spiritual basis of the Western world, the broader venue of this entire Diaspora was the Holy Roman Empire. The destruction of the second Temple is also coincident with the birth and rise of Christianity, the cornerstone of Western morality and ethics. According to Jewish tradition we are led to the conclusion that Esau= Edom= Rome= Christianity.


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Christianity, the ultimate religion of the Roman Empire, the kingdom of Edom, the basis of the inclusion of the word Holy in its name, is thus Esau's faith according to Jewish tradition. Maimonedes speaks highly of Christianity as a messianic force that spreads the knowledge of the true God among mankind (Laws of Kings,11). Christianity firmly believes in the resurrection and is hardly ready to abandon a share in the next world to anyone. Thus neither side of this bargain struck between Jacob and Esau is easy to comprehend. What is this trade of worlds all about?

The key to understanding all this is to penetrate to the bottom of Esau's declaration that he is going to die. All death is a result of sin, as the Torah informs us at the very beginning of Genesis: For the day you eat of it you shall surely die (Genesis 2:17). It is easy to mistakenly think that sin must have become original to man since death is associated with sin, and death has been a part of life ever since the first original sin of Adam.


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The Midrash, (Bereishis Rabba, 63:11) informs us that this was precisely Esau's error. The sale of the birthright took place on the day of Abraham's death. Jacob's lentil stew was prepared as mourner's fare. Lentils are round and have no perforations; their roundness is symbolic of the fact that death is part of the cycle of life and their lack of perforation is meant to convey the message that the mourner should stop his mouth from profaning God by ranting against the injustice of death. Although this is the initial emotional reaction of mourners, further reflection leads to the conclusion that death is not unjust but is merely part of the life cycle.

In contrast to this message, conveyed by Jacob through his lentils, Esau regarded all death as a direct consequence of sin. He therefore reasoned that if Abraham, the beloved of God, whose righteousness sustained him through ten arduous trials of faith was also felled by sin, there was no way to rid oneself of sin, no matter how hard one strives for perfection. Only God can redeem him from sin and from the death that sin brings about. Man is powerless to perfect himself and must be 'saved.'


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This idea is the very antithesis of Judaism. Jewish tradition teaches that the purpose of life in this world is the attainment of perfection through the exercise of free will. As we do not know how to attain spiritual perfection, God gave us commandments. The Zohar explains that the 613 commandments are God's 'etzot', pieces of advice, or guideposts to perfection. The offer of this advice was the total extent of God's interference in our ultimate fate.

God designed reality so that the reward for attaining perfection is embedded in the very structure of existence. The ultimate reward is basking in the joy of God's Presence. Each Mitzvah that a Jew does through the exercise of his free will alters his very essence and moves him closer to perfection. Every move in the direction of perfection is also a move towards God's presence.

The full observance of all the commandments in the highest possible way translates directly into the level of perfection required to arrive in God's Presence. Jews redeem themselves through the performance of mitzvot and create their own reward.

R' Moshe Chaim Luzatto, in his work Derech Hashem, Part 1, explains that not only was reality designed this way, but that this was the only way in which it could have been designed. To bask in God's Presence, the ultimate reward, you must be able to connect to Him. But you can only connect to perfection to the extent that you yourself approach perfection. One of the essential ingredients of perfection is independence. God exists independently. He is not a creation, so His existence and His essence are one and the same.


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While this level of independence is impossible for human beings to attain since we are creations and by definition are dependent on the creator, we human beings can aspire to emulate God's independent existence through the concept of just entitlement.

To allow us this option for attaining independence, God created a reality based on the principles of justice, rather than pure benevolence and love. Because we live in a just universe, anyone who has acquired his perfection through his own hard work and effort is legally entitled to keep what he or she has acquired. If anyone attempted to take it away, up to and including God Himself, the possessor of self-acquired perfection could summon God's own Principles of Justice to his side and stop Him.

Thus a person who has created his own perfection through his own sweat and toil and is therefore justly entitled to it, exists independently in a sense. He may require God's energy of creation to maintain him in existence, but he has a legal claim on this energy that is enforceable against even God Himself.


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Explains the Derech Hashem, this sort of independence must be present in anyone who wants to attach himself to God. To attach yourself to God you must resemble God. In the physical world opposites may attract, but spiritually the good and the evil repel each other. To attach yourself to God, you must resemble Him in His attributes of goodness. But if human perfection is not earned, then the human possessor of the perfection doesn't have it independently. God is independently good and the human being desirous of attaching himself to Him is not, and this difference in the quality of independence prevents the degree of attachment necessary to fully enjoy basking in the Divine Presence from coming about. Man can only enjoy his reward, attachment to God, to the extent that he has created his own perfection and is therefore independently good.

This makes the idea of Original Sin a non-starter in Jewish thought. If sin is original to man, then he cannot get rid of it no matter how hard he works at it. The only way to rid oneself of Original Sin is to be 'saved' by God, the very opposite of independence. But lacking independence, man is unable to attach himself to God, making the idea of rewarding him, the purpose of all creation impossible to attain.


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Esau said, "look, I am going to die" because in his opinion death, specifically the death of Abraham who was free of committing any serious sin, was an indication of original sin. Although Esau also believed in the resurrection and in the World to Come, he couldn't view these phenomena as being related to personal reward. He could only comprehend them as the products of God's pure love. In His own good time, when He judged it suitable, God would redeem human beings of their sin and recreate them free of sin. The recreated human being may be related to his original self, but cannot be a direct extension of him. The present human being is a creature of sin and is a creature who belongs exclusively to this world.

Jacob, on the other hand, sees his present self being resurrected. The human being of the next world is the very human being of this one. If he weren't, he couldn't possibly make it to the next world in the first place, as one can only get there by perfecting oneself through one's own efforts. So where does death fit in Jacob's worldview? Isn't it specifically stated in the Torah that death is directly related to Sin? What is the answer to Esau's argument?


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To understand the answer to this we must understand the Jewish concept of sin.

God created man out of two pre-manufactured parts; a neshama, or soul, and a guf, or a body. By its nature, man's soul is drawn to ideas and to spirituality. It is transparent to God's Divine light, stimulated by holiness, and designed to enjoy it. On the other hand, man's body, by its very nature is drawn to the material. It is insensitive to ideas and to spirituality, and can only be stimulated by and therefore is only able to enjoy physical sensation. Neither of these pre-manufactured parts have anything to do with man's choices. They were made this way by God.

But each one was fashioned with the capacity to overpower and transform the other. If the soul overpowers the body, it will transform the body so that it also becomes sensitive to spirituality and to ideas, and it will acquire the same capacity to be inspired by a beautiful insight as it presently has to be stimulated by a juicy steak. If the body overpowers the soul, it also has the ability to transform it in a more limited way, and can endow the soul with sensitivity to physical stimulation.


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The transformation in either direction is accomplished by man through the exercise of his free will. Having been created as a mixture of body and soul, man is in an existential state of conflict. His soul pulls him toward spirituality, ideas and God's presence, while his body draws him toward materialism and sensation, away from God's presence. Both the body and the soul are parts of man and each addresses him as 'I'. It is man's job to decide who he really is, soul or body.

His decisions really work. If he decides he is a soul, he will actually be one. He will follow the dictates of his soul and transform his body through the observance of mitzvoth so that it also becomes soul-like. If he decides he is a body he will really be a body, as his body will transform a large part of his soul into something that is body-like.

The body, being material, dies. The soul, being immaterial lives forever. When man was originally created, he was placed midway between the soul and body and the first man Adam, had the capacity to transform himself from body-soul to soul-soul while he was still alive by carrying out God's commandment and refraining from pursuing sensation. This is not the place to delve into the depths of the first sin. It is sufficient to state that the Torah portrays it in terms of a pursuit of physical sensation; and the woman perceived that the tree was good for eating and that it was a delight to the eyes and that the tree was desirable as a means to wisdom... (Genesis 3:6)

Thus in committing this first sin, man chose to define himself as a body rather than a soul. His 'I' was no longer balanced perfectly in the middle between the two, and he became through his action more body-body than body-soul.

Despite this tilt in the direction of the body, the option to transform himself into soul-soul had to remain open, otherwise there would have been no more point for existence to continue. To keep it open in the context of the new reality that resulted from the first sin, God had to introduce death into man's natural life cycle.


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At the time of his sin Adam had the ability to transform himself without dying. Transformation, however, is a two way street. As he chose to follow his body, part of his soul became body-like, and the existential balance in man was tipped in the direction of the body. If this change in balance were allowed to express itself, when man faced his next test, his body would be marginally more powerful and would be able to overpower his soul that much more easily.

Just like a single mitzvah would have been enough to fulfill human destiny, a single sin was potentially enough to destroy it. In order to save man, and allow the battle between body and soul to continue on equal terms, God was forced to remove the body's power to transform the soul instantaneously. But as the world is balanced, the removal of this power from the body also meant that the soul would lose its ability to instantaneously transform the body.

To maintain the battle at full strength throughout man's life, God ordered that as the soul grew ever more powerful with each mitzvah, this increased power should be stored in the soul in the form of potential energy. It would only be allowed to become kinetic energy at the time of the Resurrection. At this time, which also initiates life in the world to come, all the potential energy accumulated in man's soul during his lifetime would be released to transform his resurrected body and turn it into soul. In the meantime, as the soul could not presently transform the body man would have to die.


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The amount of potential energy stored in the soul determines the level of man's capacity to enjoy the World to Come. The more the energy, the more his body is transformed, the closer he comes to the definition of pure soul-soul, and the greater his level of his enjoyment.

For someone who accumulated negative energy during his life and thus transformed himself into body-body, the world to come is pure misery. The body cannot connect with God at all, as it was created to be totally insensitive to anything spiritual, and there is no physicality at all in the next world.

The true significance of the transaction between Jacob and Esau is now in plain view. Esau is a creature of this world. He plans to go to the next world as a different person re-created by God with only a tenuous connection to himself as he exists today. Jacob on the other hand is a creature of the next world even as he lives in this one. His life is spent in toiling at the self-transformation that is really accomplished here in this world, although it only becomes visible and tangible in the next world. Jacob is always busy working on his share of the next world while living in this world.

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