Devil in the Details

June 23, 2009

3 min read


Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9 )

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

In this week's parsha, we are introduced to our patriarch, Jacob, and his twin brother, Esau. Rashi explains (Genesis 25:27) that it was impossible to distinguish between the different natures of the twins while they were still minors, but as soon as they reached the age of 13, their true characteristics emerged: Jacob went off to learn Torah, while Esau went off to corrupt behavior.

It seems strange that Esau's negativity emerged so suddenly - especially since the Talmud (Shabbat 105b) states explicitly that a person's inclination toward negativity (yetzer hara) does not operate in this fashion. The yetzer hara, rather than advocating sudden change, entices us to sin by urging, "Just do this one small thing." The next day, it tries to persuade us to perform another small misdeed - until eventually, a person can be convinced to serve idols.

So if the nature of the yetzer hara is to gradually wear down our defenses, how could Esau have gone off the Torah path so abruptly the moment he turned 13?

Based on our Sages' explanation of the nature of the yetzer hara, we must conclude that Esau's behavioral shift was in fact a gradual process. We can understand this by looking more carefully at the wording of Rashi's comment. Rashi states that when Jacob and Esau were children, it was impossible to DISTINGUISH the difference between them - not that there was no difference! Although Esau's external behavior may have been the same as Jacob's; nevertheless, something about them was not the same.

What was this difference? We can suggest that Esau was a "big picture" person, who was more concerned with generalities than with details. Although as a child he performed the same mitzvot as Jacob, he disregarded the nuances and subtleties of the commandments. It was this inattention that ultimately led him reject the Torah path entirely.

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Dismissing the importance of details can lead to two primary dangers. First, our Sages advise (Avot 2:1), "Be as careful with a 'minor' mitzvah as you are with a 'major' one, for you do not know the reward for the mitzvot." Who are we to say that what seems like a minor detail is in fact unimportant? Since we do not know the extent of the reward for our actions, it is foolish to disregard details as being unnecessary.

Furthermore, even if we are correct in our assessment, and what seems small to us is in fact small, the cumulative result of a person's inattention to detail may eventually result in his performing more serious transgressions. The care and attention we put into performing the details of God's commandments can serve as a buffer zone to prevent us from performing more serious misdeeds.

We see this idea in Deuteronomy 7:12, which enumerates all the blessings that will come to the Jewish people "if you listen (eikev tishm'un)" to God. The word "eikev" literally means "heel," as Rashi explains: "If you observe the seemingly insignificant commandments that a person tramples with his heel, then all the blessing will come." If we are careful with the small mitzvot, eventually we will merit all of them. This shows how much we risk losing if we focus only on the big picture and ignore the fine points of mitzvot.

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Esau's name hints to his lack of concern with details. Rashi explains (Genesis 25:25) that the name "Esau" comes from the word "asui," meaning "completed." Esau was interested only in the finished, final product, not the details - and this approach led to his eventual rejection of the big picture.

The name Yaakov, on the other hand, contains within it the word "eikev" (heel). Jacob is born holding on to his brother's heel, demonstrating his attention to the details that are so easily trampled on and overlooked. For Jacob, the nuances and details of the mitzvot are top priority. This awareness strengthens his commitment to the framework within which the details belong.

May we all merit to serve God in totality, and not miss the trees for the forest (or vice versa). May we recognize that big things sometimes come in small packages, and create, through our attention to details, a shield of spiritual success and blessing.

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