The Determined Chooser


Much ink has been spilled on the polemic of “Choice vs. Determinism.” How much control do we really have over our actions? Some people seem to be naturally good, while others are forever struggling with negative character traits and ominous perversions. One individual is raised in a warm and loving home and, from earliest infancy, is impressed by educators and role-models exemplifying integrity, compassion, and idealism, while his fellow has only violence and corruption to emulate. So can man be held accountable for his behavior? Is the good we do truly to our credit?  Is the evil our fault? Isn’t it all a matter of genes and environment?

Struggling Twins

From the womb, Esau and Jacob, twin sons of Isaac and Rebecca, seemed destined to vastly different paths in life. Rebecca, the Torah tells us, had a tumultuous pregnancy: “The children struggled within her.”[1] “Whenever she would pass a house of prayer or house of study,” explains the Midrash, “Jacob would struggle to come out… and when she passed a house of idol-worship, Esau would struggle to come out.”[2] Also, “They were struggling among themselves, fighting over the inheritance of the two worlds (i.e.Olam Hazeh, the “present world” of materialism, and Olam Habbah, the “future world” of divine perfection).”[3]

G-d then tells Rebecca: “There are two nations in your womb; two peoples will separate from your innards.”[4] When the children mature, Esau develops as a “cunning hunter, a man of the field,” while Jacob grows to be “a wholesome man, a dweller in the tents of study.”[5] Jacob’s descendents become the nation of Israel, chosen by G-d as His “kingdom of priests and a holy people.”[6] Esau fathers Rome and its culture of bloodshed, cruelty, gluttony and perversion.

There are several puzzling aspects to this account:

A. Esau is frequently referred to as “the wicked” while Jacob’s righteousness is extolled. But did either have a choice in the matter? Their fate seems predetermined from the womb.

B. Where do Esau’s “evil genes” come from? Abraham, too, had both a good son, Isaac, and an evil son, Ishmael. However, Ishmael’s mother was not the righteous Sarah, but Hagar, daughter of Pharaoh, ruler of Egypt, the most depraved society on earth. Esau, however, was Jacob’s twin. Both were born of the same saintly parents, both were conceived and raised in the same “good Jewish home.” Were Esau to turn bad later in life, we could attribute this to his freedom of choice. But why did he gravitate to paganism from the very start?

C. Indeed, there is a Midrash that clearly indicates that Esau also started out on the right path. “Also Esau was part of it – only later did he ruin himself with his deeds.”[7] The Zohar goes even further, interpreting the verse “And the children matured”[8] to mean that under the tutelage of their grandfather, Abraham, the two attained spiritual greatness.[9] Does this not contradict the Midrashim quoted above?

D. Why were they “fighting over the inheritance of the two worlds”? This would seem to be one area in which they have no quarrel: Esau wants the selfishness and the materialism of the physical world and shuns everything that is G-dly and spiritual, while the opposite is true of Jacob. So what were they fighting over?

The Crest and the Climb

In the famed “Eight Chapters” of introduction to his commentary on the Talmud’s Ethics of the Fathers, Maimonides describes two types of personalities: the ‘perfectly pious’ and the ‘one who conquers his inclinations.’ The ‘perfectly pious’ individual despises evil and desires only good; since evil does not entice him, his life’s work consists only of increasing and enhancing the good in himself and the world. On the other hand, the ‘conqueror’ struggles with the negative in himself and his environment and, in the struggle itself, sees his mission in life.

In this way, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (founder of Chabad), explains the deeper significance of the verse, “Prepare for me delicacies, such as I love.”[10] The Almighty is speaking to the community of Israel, telling them that there are two kinds of gratification (“delicacies”, in the plural) that He seeks from them. The analogy is to earthly food, in which there exist two kinds of relishes: sweet and luscious foods, and tart and sour foods that have been spiced and garnished so that they are made into delicacies which gratify the soul. Similarly, there are two kinds of gratification before G-d. The first is caused by the good accomplished by the perfectly righteous. But G-d also savors a second “delicacy”, the conquest of evil which is still at its strongest and most powerful in the heart, through the efforts of the ordinary, unperfected individual.[11]

The difference between the ‘perfectly pious’ and the ‘conqueror’ is not a matter of behavior: both are beyond reproach in this regard. Where they differ is in their character and in the focus of their lives. The ‘perfectly pious’ individual was either born with a flawless char­acter or has succeeded in refining it; he now concentrates on attain­ing greater heights within the realm of good itself. The ‘conqueror,’ however, is still struggling with his nature, constantly defeating his negative inclinations in order to maintain the integrity of his behav­ior. In fact, to him the struggle is not merely the means to attain a state of ‘pious perfection’ but an end in itself. Even if he never rids himself of imperfection, he has realized his mission in life. His contri­bution is a “delicacy” of the second sort – it is the very process of struggling with evil that G-d desires of him.

In the light of this, we can understand the Esau-Jacob phenomenon. Every man has been given the divine gift of utter free choice and volition: no matter how strongly the deck may be stacked against him, no matter what demons pervade his heart, he has been fortified with sufficient willpower and the necessary spiritual resources to overcome it all. As our sages have said: “One who is greater than his fellow, his evil inclination is also greater”[12] – conversely, for every challenge that man must face, he has what it takes to meet and over­come it. The fact the Esau had a powerful inborn inclination towards evil did not mean that he was doomed to a life of corruption. It meant that his challenge in life was to be a “cunning hunter, a man of the field,” a ‘conqueror’ who grapples with the mundanity in him­self and the world. It meant that unlike Jacob, whose goodness was “natural,” Esau possessed the potential for the “second delicacy” equally vital to G-d’s purpose in creation.

Isaac, as a ‘founding father’ of the Jewish people, incorporated within himself the potential for both the ‘perfectly pious’ and the ‘conqueror’ modes of life. His own life was one of pious perfection; but his twin sons embodied these two aspects of man’s service of his Creator. Esau, of course, had free choice, as does every man (even the per­fectly pious individual can regress or fail to fulfill his potential), a choice which he failed to exercised properly. But this happened later in his life. The fact that while yet in the womb he was strongly drawn to the pagan enticements of idolatry, the fact that he was intrinsically a cunning hunter in the arena of the material, did not prevent him from growing spiritually together with his brother Jacob. “The chil­dren matured,” each in his own ordained field of endeavor: Jacob in the tents of study, Esau in the challenges of the material world.

This also clarifies a puzzling passage in Rashi’s commentary on Torah. On the verse “And these are the descendents of Isaac…”[13] Rashi explains: “Jacob and Esau who are mentioned in the parsha (Torah section).”  But immediately following this verse, after a brief mention of Isaac’s marriage, the Torah recounts the birth of Jacob and Esau. So what need is there for Rashi to explain? Everything seems perfectly clear.

But Rashi is addressing the very issue raised above: how does an ‘Esau’ come to be a descendent of Isaac and Rebekah? How do these two perfectly righteous individuals produce an offspring who is evil from birth? Says Rashi: ‘Esau the Wicked’ is not a product of Isaac but a creature of his own making. The “descendents of Isaac” are the “Jacob and Esau who are mentioned in the parsha.” The Esau of the parsha, Esau as viewed from the perspective of Torah -in which everything is seen in its innermost and truest light- is not evil, but the instrument of its conquest. The Esau of the parsha is the pur­veyor of the ‘second delicacy’ and an indispensable element of the purpose of life on earth.

Means and Ends

If Jacob is the ‘perfectly pious’ individual, and Esau the potential ‘conqueror,’ we can now understand their pre-natal argument over the ‘two worlds.’

Olam Habbah, the perfect future world of Moshiach, is not a reality that is disconnected from our present existence. It is the result of our present-day efforts in dealing with and perfecting the material world. The world of Moshiach represents the ultimate realization of the divine potential invested in creation, the era in which the goodness inherent in man, and in all of the created existence, will come to light.

So for both the ‘perfectly pious’ and the ‘conqueror’ the present world is the means and the future world is the goal. Also the ‘perfectly pious’ man ‘needs’ the physical existence as the vehicle which leads to ultimate perfection. And the ‘conqueror,’ too, sees perfection as the goal to which his efforts lead. For although his pur­pose in life is defined by the process itself, every meaningful process must have a goal.

Thus, both ‘Jacob’ and ‘Esau’ lay claim to both worlds as part of their lives’ endeavor, but their priorities are reversed. To the ‘Jacobs’ of the world, the material world is but a tool, the means to an end. To the ‘Esaus,’ man’s material involvements and the struggles they entail are what life is all about. A futuristic vision of perfection is necessary, but only as a reference-point that serves to provide coherence and direction to the “real” business of life.

The tension between them over their differing visions of the “two worlds” is not a negative thing. It is the result of two world views, both positive and necessary, both indispensable components of man’s mission in life.

From an address by the Rebbe, Shabbos Toldos 1980

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber


[1] Genesis 25:22.

[2] Bereishis Rabbah 63:6.

[3] Yalkut Shimoni on the verse.

[4] Gen. 25:23.

[5] Gen. 25:27.

[6] Exodus 19:6.

[7] Yalkut Shimoni, Joshuah 23.

[8] Gen. 25:27.

[9]  Zohar, Toldot 138b.

[10] Gen. 27:4

[11] Tanya chapter 27.

[12] The Talmud, Sukah 52b.

[13] Gen. 25:19, the opening verse of our Torah reading


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