And it came to pass at the time that she gave birth, that, behold, there were twins in her womb…. And [the firstborn’s] name was called Peretz. Afterward came forth his brother … and his name was called Zerach

Genesis 38:27-30

[Here it says,] “at the time that she gave birth”; in Rebecca’s case it says, “and her days to give birth were fulfilled.” For there it was a fulfilled term of pregnancy, while here it was unfulfilled.
[Here, the word] “twins” is written in its full spelling; there it is written in a deficient spelling. For [in Rebecca’s case] one of them was wicked, while here both were righteous

Rashi, ibid.

Among the numerous births recounted in the book of Genesis, two are of twins: the birth of Isaac’s and Rebecca’s twins, Jacob and Esau; and the birth of Peretz and Zerach, twin sons of Tamar and Judah.

While certain similarities mark the two births,[1] there are also some significant differences, both in the circumstances surrounding the two pregnancies as well as in the characters of the two sets of twins they produced.

Isaac and Rebecca were married for twenty childless years; they prayed for children, each evoking the righteousness of the other in their appeal to G-d.[2] Their sacred union produced two very different sons: Jacob grew to become a gentle scholar; Esau, a crass and conniving materialist.[3]

Tamar’s twins were conceived in far less exalted circumstances. Tamar was originally married to Judah’s eldest son, Er. Upon Er’s untimely death, she was given in levirate marriage[4] to his younger brother, Onan; but Onan, too, died childless. When Tamar realized that Judah had no intention of marrying her to his third son, Shelah, she disguised herself as a prostitute and seduced Judah himself. When her pregnancy became apparent, Tamar was almost put to death, on Judah’s orders, for harlotry; it was only when she produced certain personal effects which Judah had left with her as collateral against his payment to her that Judah realized that the “prostitute” with whom he had cohabited with was his former daughter-in-law and the twins in her womb were fathered by himself.[5]

Yet unlike the mixed progeny of Isaac and Rebecca’s marriage, the twin sons born out of this morally dubious union were both righteous men. Indeed, all kings of Israel, from David to Moshiach, are the issue of Tamar’s pregnancy.[6]

The inverse differences between these two pregnancies and births are alluded to in the verses that describe them. Regarding Rebecca’s pregnancy, the Torah says, “Her days to give birth were fulfilled; and, behold, there were twins in her womb”; with Tamar, the Torah writes: “At the time that she gave birth, behold, there were twins in her womb.” Our sages, noting the different phraseology, explain that Rebecca’s was a “fulfilled” pregnancy of nine full months, while Tamar gave birth after an “unfulfilled” pregnancy of only seven months.[7]

Our sages also note that the Hebrew word for “twins,” te’omim, is spelled differently in the two accounts. In the Holy Tongue, many words can be written in either a “full” spelling or a “deficient” spelling (i.e., lacking one or more letters). In the account of Peretz and Zerach’s birth, the word te’omim appears in its full spelling; but in the account of Jacob and Esau’s birth, it appears in deficient form, lacking the letters aleph and yud. This, explain the commentaries, alludes to the fact that Tamar’s twins “were both righteous, while in [Rebecca’s] case, one was righteous and the other wicked.”[8]

In other words, the “fulfilled” pregnancy of Rebecca produced a “deficient” set of twins, while Tamar’s “deficient” pregnancy produced a “full” and perfect progeny.

Seeds of Evil?

But was Rebecca’s indeed a perfect pregnancy? The Midrash seems to imply that the wicked half of her progeny was already asserting his evil nature while still in the womb.

The Torah relates that “The children struggled within her.”[9] The Midrash explains: “Whenever she would pass a house of prayer or house of study, Jacob would struggle to come out … and when she passed a house of idolatry, Esau would struggle to come out.”[10] Rebecca, puzzled by the contrary strivings being exhibited by her offspring, “sought the counsel of G-d” and was told: “There are two nations in your womb; two peoples will separate from your innards.”[11]

There are, however, other Midrashic accounts that describe Esau and Jacob sharing a righteous childhood in the holy environment of their parents’ home and under the tutelage of their saintly grandfather, Abraham, and that “only later did Esau ruin himself with his deeds.”[12] This supports our initial conception of an impeccable conception, pregnancy and birth, followed by a “deficient” progeny that is attributable solely to the fact that Esau, by his own free will, chose to follow a path of evil.

But a similar contradiction is also to be found in our Sages’ remarks regarding G-d’s creation of the world. On the one hand, we have the Midrashic statement that “The world was created fulfilled”—i.e., fully matured and lacking nothing.[13] Yet the perfect world which G-d created contains the potential for imperfection, even evil. Indeed, this potential is an integral part of its perfection. The Midrash, citing the verse, “And G-d looked upon all that He made and, behold, it was very good,” comments: “‘Behold it was very good’—this is the good inclination; ‘and behold it was very good’—this is the inclination for evil … ‘behold it was very good’—this is good fortune; ‘and behold it was very good’—this is suffering … ‘behold it was very good’—this is paradise; ‘and behold it was very good’—this is hell … ‘behold it was very good’—this is the angel of life; ‘and behold it was very good’—this is the angel of death….”[14]

The Two Delicacies

A fundamental principle of the Jewish faith is that, “Freedom of choice has been granted to every man: if he desires to turn himself to a path of good and be a righteous person, the option is in his hands; if he desires to turn himself to a path of evil and be a wicked person, the option is in his hands.”[15] Yet we observe that certain people are more susceptible to evil than others. The Talmud describes the prototypical victim of evil, Job, protesting to G-d: “Master of the universe! You have created righteous people, and you have created wicked people!”[16]

In his Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains that G-d indeed created “righteous people” and “wicked people.” “Righteous people” (tzaddikim) are individuals who, by nature, abhor evil and desire only good, either because they have been born that way or because they have transformed their negative drives into positive ones. “Wicked people,” on the other hand, are those individuals who are destined “not to be wicked in actuality, G-d forbid, but that the doings of the wicked should approach them, in their minds and thoughts alone, so that they must constantly battle to avert their minds from them and suppress the evil; for they would not be able to annihilate it completely—as can only be achieved by the righteous.”[17]

For G-d desires both these types of human being in His world. “Just like in physical foods, for example, there exist two types of delicacies: sweet and luscious foods, and sharp or sour foods which have been spiced and garnished so that they are made into delicacies which gratify the soul,” so, too, “there are two kinds of gratification before G-d: one, from the complete annihilation of evil … by the righteous; the second, when evil is subdued while it is still at its strongest and most powerful … through the efforts of the intermediate man.”[18]

This is the deeper significance of the “two nations” which Rebecca was told dwelled in her womb. The gravitation to evil exhibited by one of her twins was not a deficiency—it was the potential for the “second delicacy” craved by G-d. It was only later, when Esau chose to surrender to his evil inclination rather than battle it, that the duality of forces she birthed became a “deficient” set of twins.

As they existed within Rebecca, however, Jacob and Esau constituted a “full” pregnancy, containing both of the two fundamental potentials that G-d implanted in His creation: the delight of utter goodness, and the distinct pleasure and sense of achievement that comes only from the struggle with adversity.[19]

Tamar’s pregnancy and delivery describe the reverse process: how negative circumstances and actions can be sublimated so that the original perfection, from which every potential in existence stems, is restored. Indeed, when the potential for evil, suffering, hell and death becomes actual, the opportunity exists for an even deeper perfection to be achieved, when these are vanquished and transformed into good.

The Ascent to Mount Zion

Hence the paradox of our existence: perfection begets imperfection (as in Rebecca’s pregnancy), for nothing can be said to be truly perfect unless it possesses the potential for struggle, which means that it must be vulnerable to imperfection. And imperfection gives birth to perfection (as in Tamar’s pregnancy) when that vulnerability is exploited to reap the rewards of struggle and to attain the perfect twinship of pristine goodness and vanquished evil.

The whole of history is the noble and painful progress toward the resolution of this paradox when, in the age of Moshiach, “the saviors (descendants of Tamar) shall ascend the mountain of Zion to judge the mountain of (Rebecca’s) Esau,”[20] uniting the vulnerabilities that are born out of the perfection of G-d’s creation with the perfection that is born out of the vulnerabilities of the human condition.[21]

Based on the Rebbe’s talks on Shabbat Toledot, 5744 (1983), and on other occasions[22].

Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber.

[1]. Both births involved a struggle between the twins as to which one would be the firstborn. Jacob was born with “his hand grasping the heel of Esau” (Genesis 25:26; Jacob later contrived to purchase the birthright from Esau and to receive the blessing Isaac intended for his firstborn). In the case of Peretz and Zerach, the Torah relates how Zerach’s hand was the first to emerge from the womb but was retracted when that twin yielded to Peretz’s aggressive efforts to be born first (ibid., 38:27-30).

[2]. Genesis 25:21; Midrash Rabbah on verse.

[3]. Genesis 25:27.

[4]. The principle of levirate marriage (yibbum) is set down in Deuteronomy 25:5-6: “If brothers dwell together, and one of them should die childless, the dead man’s wife shall not marry out of the family to a stranger; her husband’s brother shall cohabit with her and take her as her as his wife in yibbum. And the firstborn to which she shall give birth shall succeed in the name of the dead brother, so that his name not be wiped out in Israel…”

[5]. Genesis 38:6-26.

[6]. See Ruth 4:18-22.

[7]. Rashi on Genesis 25:24 and 38:27.

[8]. Ibid.

[9]. Genesis 25:22.

[10]. Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 63:6.

[11]. Genesis 25:22-23.

[12]. Zohar I, 138b; Yalkut Shimoni, Joshua 23.

[13]. Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 14:7.

[14]. Ibid., 9:9-12; cf. ibid., Kohelet 3:15: “‘Good’—this is the good inclination; ‘very good’—this is the inclination for evil.”

[15]. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 5:1.

[16]. Talmud, Bava Batra 16a.

[17]. Tanya, ch. 27.

[18]. Ibid. The “intermediate man” (beinoni) is Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s term for the so-called “wicked person” who, though his actual behavior is in full conformity with the divine will, must constantly struggle against his own animal nature and evil inclination. The state of beinoni is thus an intermediate state between the tzaddik, who has uprooted and transformed his negative traits, and the rasha, the actually wicked individual.

[19]. See The Inside Story (VHH, 1997), pp. 48-56.

[20]. Obadiah 1:21; see Rashi on Genesis 33:14.

[21]. Cf. Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 12:5: “The word toldot (“chronicles”) appears everywhere in the Torah in a deficient spelling, except in two instances: ‘These are the chronicles of Peretz’ (Ruth 4:18), and [‘These are the chronicles of the heaven and the earth upon their creation’ (Genesis 2:1)]. Why are all the others lacking [the letter vav]? … Because of the six (vav) things taken from Adam [in wake of his sin]: his radiance, his life, his stature, the fruit of the earth, the fruit of the trees, and the luminaries…. These shall be restored only with the coming of [Moshiach] the descendent of Peretz.”

[22]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXX, pp. 110-115, et al.


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