Nature or Nurture: It's All In Our Hands

November 4, 2018

6 min read


Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9 )

In Parashas Toldos, we find that when Esau was born, he emerged from the womb red in appearance.1 It was only later, however, when he was full grown and demanded of his brother Jacob, "Pour into me, now, some of that very red stuff,"2 that he was called "Edom" (red). Edom is a metaphor for cruelty and blood lust. At birth, Esau already had the potential to be a killer, but he also had the potential to channel his inclinations in a positive way. It was only when he used his talents negatively that he received the name Edom. We learn that all tendencies and character traits can be directed either for the good or for the bad. The choice is ours, and it is by the choices we make that we are measured. Once Esau expressed himself in such a crude and cruel manner, "Pour into me, now, some of that very red stuff," he was called Edom because he had chosen to be a crude and cruel person.

From this we learn that our words not only impact on others, but perhaps even more significantly, they influence and shape our own personalities. Thus, if you speak in a cold, uncaring manner, you will eventually become cold and uncaring; if you speak in loving, caring language, the possibility that you will become loving and caring can become a reality. The Torah is alerting us to the far-reaching effects of our deeds and words as they shape and mold our character. Therefore, we must be ever on guard to use refined language and gentle, compassionate words, not only so that we might interact with others with warmth and love, but also so that we ourselves might become better, kinder people.

One might argue that Esau can hardly be held responsible for his barbaric ways. After all, he was born red, and his propensity for evil was inborn. Moreover, isn't it true that everything is pre-determined, that the script of our lives is written before we are born? To a certain extent, this is true; nevertheless, we have been given free choice in the most crucial of all decisions: that is, shaping our character. The Talmud states, "Everything is foretold except our yiras Shamayim [reverence for God]." Thus, for example, before birth, it is determined how high our I.Q. will be, but it is our decision (based on our reverence for God) whether we will use that high I.Q. to bring blessing to others, or God forbid, to inflict harm and pain upon them. Just consider how different the world would have been had Hitler used his ability to sway public opinion for good rather than for evil. The same holds true in every area of life.

David, king of Israel, is a perfect example. He demonstrates how one can harness one's inborn characteristics and channel them for the benefit of mankind. It is written that he, too, was born red, but his yiras Shamayim was the guiding light of his life. Thus, with his words he created psalms and with his courage, he defeated the evil Goliath and forever changed the course of mankind. These thoughts from the parashah should inspire us to scrutinize our own personalities, measure our own words, and evaluate our own deeds so that we may convert our weaknesses into strengths, our failures into wisdom and our apathy into caring. Let us each do our share to create a better world.

Our Roots – Our Treasures

We are all familiar with the story of Jacob and Esau, which is the focus of this parashah. There are, however, also passages of which we may be less aware and which at first glance appear to have less personal meaning or significance. Upon closer examination, however, they reveal to us the history of our people and our eternal resilience.

Even as in the days of Abraham, when famine forced the Patriarch to leave his home, so, too, Isaac was confronted by hunger and, as commanded by Hashem, went to dwell in the land of Gerar, where King Abimelech reigned. There, Isaac became very prosperous and re-dug the wells that the servants of his father, Abraham, had dug, wells that produced "living" water. Those wells had been stopped up by the people of Gerar because of hatred and jealousy. Isaac not only opened the wells, but he called them by the very same names as his father had.3

The message of these wells is profound and has direct bearing on us today. Wells that produce living waters are symbolic of Torah. Those who hate us cannot bear for us to dig deeply into our wells and bring forth the spiritual treasures buried in our souls. In every generation they find different ways to persecute us and close our wells. But even as Isaac re-opened the wells of his father, so too must we open our ancient wells, keep digging, and plumb the Torah to its depths so that its living waters may pour forth and refresh our souls. We learn that we are never to be disheartened, never to give up. Torah study is not just an avocation: it is our very life, the essence of our being, and no force on earth can separate us from it.

Furthermore, when Isaac called the wells by the very same names designated by his father, he taught us that, when it comes to spirituality, we must go back to the very roots and foundation that our parents set forth for us. We dare not even change names; how much more so must we retain the way of life that our ancestors paved for us. Our prayers, our mitzvos, our chesed, are all symbolized by those wells, and therein lies our resilience. Isaac renewed Abraham's wells, and those three wells are reminders of our Holy Temples: the first two that were destroyed and the third that is yet to be built and will stand eternally.

Our generation has encountered those who would shut down our wells. The Nazis, the Communists – they tried, and failed. The Torah that was once studied in the mighty yeshivas of Europe was not consumed in the flames of the Holocaust; that Torah found new life on these shores, in Israel, and the world over – wherever the descendants of Isaac live. Fortunately for us, in this blessed country our wells have not been shut down. We do not have to endanger our lives in order to study Torah. We just have to dig deeply into our hearts and renew our commitment to our covenant with God, and we will discover a wellspring of treasures.

  1. Gen. 25:25.
  2. Ibid. 25:30.
  3. Ibid. 26:15-18.
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