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Esav's Potential

Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

"And the children crushed within her..." (Bereishit, 25:22)

And [the children] crushed:When she would pass by entrances of places of Torah study of Shem and Ever, Yaakov would run and toss about to go out of his [mother's womb]... when she would pass by entrances of idol worship Esav would toss about to go out... (Rashi, Bereishit, 25:22, sv.)

The behavior of Esav is in the womb is very difficult to understand. The Midrash seems to imply that Esav was evil from the time that he was a fetus. The commentaries point out a problem with this Midrash;[1] they bring sources that the yetzer hara (negative inclination) only enters a person from the time he was born, yet according to this Midrash, Esav already seemed to have a strong yetzer hara in the womb!

Rav Nosson Weiss answers this by closely analyzing Rashi's words - he only says that Esav wanted to go towards the places of idol worship, but he does not say what Esav wanted to do there. This means that Esav had an inborn inclination towards places of evil, yet it would be up to him when he grew up to use that inclination in a constructive way. The most obvious positive way that he could do this would be to destroy such places, rather than be spiritually destroyed by them. Thus, we see that Esav was not evil from the womb, rather he had a natural leaning which could be used for the good or for the bad.

Indeed, a careful analysis of the Rabbinic sources describing Esav's early life demonstrates that he did indeed possess great ability in fighting evil. The Torah describes the young Esav as a "man who knew how to trap".[2] The Midrash says that one interpretation of these words is that he would trap criminals with his mouth; they would deny their involvement in a crime and he would trick them into admitting the truth.[3] The Targum Yonasan on the same verse makes an even more dramatic revelation - that Esav actually killed the leader of the idol worshippers, Nimrod. Thus, he evidently had a talent in destroying evil.

Had Esav continued applying his natural attraction to evil positively he could surely have achieved greatness and fulfilled the role that Yitzchak desired for him. Instead he allowed himself to be overcome by the immorality that he encountered and degenerated into an evildoer of the worst kind.

The Midrash tells us that a very different persona in the Prophets shared a similar inclination to Esav - the great King David. God sent the Prophet Shmuel to anoint David as King, but Shmuel saw that David had a red complexion. The color red represents an inclination to kill, and when Shmuel saw that David has this leaning, he feared that he would be a murderer like Esav. God reassured him that David would apply this inclination in the correct way and use it to kill when Jewish law permits it, such as to defend the nation when it is attacked.

We have seen how Esav's natural leaning towards evil did not mean that it was inevitable that he would be a sinful person, but that when he grew up he applied his free will in the wrong way. This teaches an important lesson with regards to how a person develops his character traits. Every trait can be applied in a positive or negative way; one can choose to use this trait for selfish reasons or he can channel it in a positive way to perform God's will.


1. Gur Aryeh, Bereishit, 25:22. He brings the verse in Bereishit, 4:7, that describes the yester hara: "Sin crouches at the opening", 'at the opening' refers to the time when the baby enters the world.
2. Bereishit, 25:27.
3. Bereishit Rabbah, 63:10.

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