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The Wickedness of Eisav

Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9 )

by Rabbi Zvi Belovski

Much of this week's Torah portion is concerned with the relationship between Yaakov and Eisav. At the end of the portion, after the incident with the blessings, we learn something about Eisav which is quite fundamental to properly understanding his character. Eisav felt that he should have received the primary blessing from his father, but had instead been cheated by Yaakov. He was extremely upset with Yaakov and resolved to kill him for his "theft" of the blessing.

While Yaakov fled from his brother's wrath, Eisav found himself a new wife:

Eisav saw that the daughters of Canaan were wicked in the eyes of Yitzchak, his father. Eisav went to Yishmael and took as a wife Machlas the daughter of Yishmael, the son of Avraham, the sister of Nevayos, in addition to his wives. (Bereishis 28:8-9)

We may suggest that the sequence of events is crucial. Eisav felt cheated and, in response, decided to marry a new wife. He thought that changing his wife would improve his bad fortune!

It is understood that if events do not go exactly as planned in one's life, then the appropriate action is to contemplate one's personality and embark on a course of self-improvement. Perhaps one has not been living up to one's responsibilities, and God is dealing with one accordingly. Self-improvement is the key to an improved lot in life.

All of this, however, was beyond Eisav's comprehension. He was thoroughly wicked and could not imagine that anything he could possibly have done himself could have caused his misfortune. He thus looked outside himself to rectify the situation. To him, the problem was completely external - and the obvious place to look was at his wives. He thus found a new wife immediately after the incident of the blessings.

This catastrophic character defect - the inability to even consider that one has flaws - was inherent in Eisav's name. The name "Eisav" has the same letters (and basic meaning) as the Hebrew word asui (made; completed). This indicates that Eisav was a man who felt no need for self-improvement whatsoever - he was perfect, complete in every way. Indeed, the gematriah (numerical value) of "Eisav" is 376, which is the same as that of shalom (peace; wholeness). Eisav was entirely at peace with himself. He did not and could not feel the discord that every normal human experiences - the realization that one is not perfect and must improve.

Just before Eisav returned to his father to discover that Yaakov had already received the blessings, we learn:

And Eisav came from his hunting (Bereishis 27:30) - Eisav was armed to entrap his soul. (Bereishis Rabbah 66:5)

It is not entirely clear whose soul is referred to by this midrash. We may suggest that it is Yaakov's soul which Eisav was intending to trap. At this stage, before he knew that he had been usurped by his brother, Eisav believed that he could have everything - he would eventually ensnare and eliminate Yaakov and remain the chosen son, inheriting everything, both spiritual and physical, from his father. But when he entered his father's room and discovered that Yaakov had already received the spiritual blessings, his world fell apart; he would ultimately remain secondary to Yaakov and his descendants. At that moment, Eisav should have realized that he was at fault, that this calamity had befallen him through his own personal deficiencies. Instead, as we have said, he turned not to himself but to his family, for in his mind, the problem must have originated with them and not with him.

Indeed, when Eisav remarried, his calculation was quite careful. He reasoned that he must have made an error in wedding the daughters of Canaan, for they were forever cursed. This error must have caused his misfortune. So he turned instead to his uncle, Yishmael, to find a new wife. He assumed that since Yishmael was a relative, indeed a descendant of Avraham Avinu, who had received his own blessing, then marrying his daughter would restore his lost fortune. We know that Eisav intended to kill Yaakov and perhaps was confident that Yaakov would be spiritually damaged by his encounter with Lavan. In Eisav's mind, remarrying and intending to kill his brother were all that were necessary to ensure that life would continue as before.

It is intriguing to note that Eisav did not even divorce his existing wives. As we saw, the Torah indicates that Eisav married Machlas in addition to his existing, Canaanite wives. Despite their unsavory behavior (we saw above that Yitzchak hated them), the only fault that Eisav could find in them was their yichus (family background). It didn't worry him that they were evil people, so he just married a new wife for child-bearing purposes while retaining the old ones. Once the minor problem of his future children's yichus was dealt with, Eisav felt that he had no need for further action.

* * *


We can demonstrate that this character description of Eisav was precisely the opposite of that of Yaakov. Yaakov's name means "heel," and the name of a person always describes his essence. Yaakov imagined himself as a "heel" - a lowly person, someone who could achieve much more for himself. He was a climber, always prepared to engage in self-improvement and self-criticism. Our Sages tell us:

Anyone who refers to Avraham as Avram [his original name] has transgressed a positive command, but anyone who refers to Yisrael as Yaakov [God gave Yaakov the additional name of Yisrael] has not transgressed, as the Torah itself calls him by this name later on. (Berachos 13a)

While the name "Yaakov" means "heel," the name "Yisrael" derives its meaning from "striving with God and men and prevailing." It is a name which indicates that Yaakov had achieved very great success in all of his endeavors. My holy father explained the above statement of our Sages to mean that even after Yaakov became Yisrael, he still saw himself as a "heel"; he was still prepared to realize that continuous self-assessment and development was the only way to a meaningful existence. While in God's eyes and the eyes of those around him Yaakov was now Yisrael, in his own eyes he remained firmly Yaakov.

There is a great message in this for all of us. We must take to heart the difference between Yaakov's existence and that of Eisav. Eisav's inherent downfall was his refusal - his inability - to appreciate that when life didn't work out for him he should examine his own lifestyle and make improvements. Yaakov, our role model, realized that this ability to scrutinize one's actions and change accordingly is the key to a valuable Jewish life.

Excerpted from Shem MiShmuel by the Sochatchover Rebbe, rendered into English by Rabbi Zvi Belovski, published by Targum Press. Click here to order.


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