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The Cosmic Battle Between Yaakov and Esav (Parshas Toldos)

parsha sefer bereishis Nov 18, 2020


A young man was sitting at the airport gate, waiting for his flight home. After realizing that his flight was delayed, he bought a book and a small bag of chocolate chip cookies to enjoy while he waited. As he sat reading, he noticed an older man sitting next to him reading a book as well. He was about to turn back to his book when he noticed the older man reach into the bag of cookies that lay between their seats and take a cookie. Shocked, he pointedly took a cookie from the bag and began eating it. “The nerve,” he thought, “he didn’t even ask”. The older man just looked at him and smiled, taking another cookie and eating it as he continued reading. He said nothing, but inside he could feel himself starting to get angry. For each cookie he took, the older man took one too. This continued until there was only one cookie left. He sat there fuming, debating whether or not to say anything, when the older man did the unthinkable. He picked up the cookie, split it in half, and handed him a piece. Well, that was it! He was so infuriated by the older man’s lack of consideration that he packed up his things and moved. His flight was called soon after, so he gladly boarded and began settling in for the flight. As he opened his bag to take out his book, he felt his heart sink. There, at the bottom of his bag, was his bag of cookies.

Things are not always as they seem. Each and every person in this world has a story, one much deeper than a surface glance reveals. Similarly, every object and occurrence in the physical world is laced with layers of depth and meaning. We must choose to peer beyond the surface in order to discover these layers.


 Yaakov vs. Esav


In Parshas Toldos, Rivka Imeinu gives birth to Yaakov and Esav. Her pregnancy is extremely difficult, with the two fetuses struggling violently within her. Rashi[1] cites the famous midrash which describes the battle that transpired between Yaakov and Esav in the womb. Whenever Rivka passed a place of Torah study, Yaakov was drawn towards it, and whenever she passed a house of idol worship, Esav was drawn towards it. Yaakov desired the spiritual and Olam Habah (The World to Come), while Esav desired the physical and Olam Hazeh (the physical world).[2] This was the cosmic battle that took place within Rivka's womb.


The Obvious Problem


The problem with this “battle”, however, is quite obvious. If Yaakov wanted the spiritual, and Esav desired the physical, where is the point of contention? This is not a battle- they can simply each take what they desire, without any need for argument or disagreement. There's nothing to fight over.


For example, if there are two cups of ice cream, chocolate and vanilla, and one sibling wants chocolate, while the other craves vanilla, then surely there is no argument! They are actually in agreement- each can simply take what they desire. An argument would arise only if there was one cup of ice cream and they both wanted it. What, then, was the fight between Yaakov and Esav about?


Ikar and Tafel


In order to understand the depth of this battle, we must understand the concepts of ikar (primary) and tafel (secondary). “Ikar” is the inner essence and the main entity; the tafel is what enables the ikar to flourish. For example, the ikar of an orange is the inner fruit, while the peel is the tafel, as it protects and enables the fruit. The same principle applies to a person; the ikar of a person is the neshama, the self, the mind and soul. The body is the tafel, as it enables the soul to exist in this world, to learn, grow, and expand. This is the ideal relationship between the spiritual and physical world- the spiritual is the ikar, and the physical the tafel. The physical world is meant to enable, to reflect and express, the spiritual.


The ideal is for the tafel (that which is secondary and lower) to perfectly and loyally reflect the ikar (the inner spiritual essence) - for the body to faithfully reflect the truth and depth of the soul, for the physical to be a loyal vessel, fully reflecting its spiritual root. The body is meant to be the vehicle which carries the soul though the world.


We don't believe in rejecting the physical, but we don't wish to get stuck in the physical either.[3] The goal is a beautiful but nuanced balance, where the physical is used to reflect something higher, the spiritual. In this perfect balance, the wisdom and ideas of Torah become one with you, and you express that inner, spiritual depth through the physical. This is why almost all the mitzvos are accomplished through physical actions![4] And this was the very battle between Yaakov and Esav, a battle of perception, a battle of ikar versus tafel.


Yaakov vs. Esav


The truth is that both Yaakov and Esav wanted both the spiritual and the physical, and this was the root of their battle. Yaakov wanted to use the physical as a vehicle for the spiritual, as a tool to fully utilize and actualize spiritual potential. Esav, in contrast, wanted to use the animation of the soul, but merely as a means to indulge in the physical. Essentially, Esav flipped the ikar and tafel, corrupting their ideal relationship; he viewed the physical as ikar (primary) and the spiritual as tafel (secondary), a necessary medium for experiencing the physical world.


Esav did not wish to use the physical to reflect anything higher than his own selfish desires. This can be compared to a computer screen that blocked the image you wanted to see and projected itself in its place. A computer screen is the means by which we interact with a computer’s inner content – a computer that projects only its own screen is useless, as it rejects its true purpose. Similarly, imagine a projector that didn't project the film, but projected itself instead. This is what Esav tried to do, to focus on himself and his own ego instead of reflecting something higher. Just as he refused to reflect anything higher, he did not wish for the physical world to reflect any higher truth.


Esav's Twisted Philosophy


This insight into Esav’s character and values sheds light onto many episodes in his life. At the beginning of Parshas Toldos[5], the Torah describes Yaakov and Esav’s development and their respective personalities. Yaakov was a pure, spiritual individual, who dwelt in the tents (of Torah), whereas Esav was a man of the field, a hunter. Rashi[6] quotes the midrash that expounds on this verse, explaining that Esav was not only a literal hunter and trapper, but also a figurative one: he ensnared Yitzchak's mind by convincing him of his alleged spiritual greatness. How did he accomplish this? Esav asked Yitzchak how to take ma’aser from (tithe) salt and straw, convincing his father that he was scrupulous in his mitzvah observance.[7] 


While Yitzchak was impressed with Esav's apparent halachic stringency, Esav was actually portraying his twisted ideology. Straw and salt have an important characteristic in common: they are both tafel. Straw is the protective casing of wheat; independently, it is worthless. The same is true of salt. Anyone who cooks know that salt itself is not meant to be tasted; it is meant only to draw out the flavor of the food. Salt is the tafel, the enabler of taste.[8][9]


Esav specifically asked how to tithe straw and salt, both of which are tafel. This was a reflection of his corrupted worldview. He essentially claimed that the tafel- salt and straw- deserves attention as the ikar - the main focus. This was his view towards the physical and spiritual as a whole: Esav sought to turn the tafel - the physical - into the ikar. He placed the physical world as the center and main focus of life, with the spiritual simply serving to enable its pursuit.[10] While Yaakov saw the physical body as his instrument to carry his soul through this world and enable him to live a spiritual life, Esav saw the soul as merely a way to animate his physical body and allow him to enjoy this physical world.


This is perhaps why in Sefer Ovadiah[11], Esav is compared to a nation of straw. Esav and his nation, Edom, are immersed in the world of tafel and physicality. Chazal[12] compare Esav to a pig: a pig gives off an external impression of being kosher, due to its split hooves; but in truth, on the inside, it's completely treif (as it doesn’t chew its cud). So too, Esav portrayed himself as a tzaddik on the outside, but on the inside, he was twisted and corrupt.[13]


Selling the Bechora


Based on these ideas, we can conclude by explaining why Esav sold the bechora (firstborn rights) immediately after his grandfather, Avraham Avinu, passed away. The pasuk[14] states that Esav despised the bechora, proclaiming that he would eventually die anyways, and therefore had no need for it. What is the meaning behind Esav's animosity towards the bechora, and why does he sell it specifically after Avraham passes away?


The answer to these questions is profound. The bechora is a spiritual inheritance. It grants the privilege and obligation to serve in the Beis Ha’Mikdash[15], to live with a higher purpose, to be rooted in a higher world – all of which meant nothing to Esav. Esav lived a completely physical, finite existence. In his mind, there was no life after death, nothing beyond this fleeting, limited life.


Furthermore, the bechora is a spiritual inheritance that he would pass on to his future generations. In Esav's eyes, though, his death meant the end of his existence, as he didn’t believe in an eternal spiritual afterlife. He did not care about what his children would receive, about any future occurrence.[16] The only currency Esav was interested in was sensory experience. With no deeper roots, Esav's entire existence was invested in this physical world.


When Esav experienced Avraham's death, he was reminded of his own fate according to his own philosophy. At that moment, the worthlessness of the bechora was brought into sharp relief.

He valued only that which he could experience in the physical world, which is why he exchanged the bechora for a bowl of food- eternal spiritual significance for fleeting bodily pleasure.


A Life of Ikar

Esav distorted the ideal relationship between ikar and tafel, valuing only the physical, limited surface, and cutting it off from any higher reality. Yaakov teaches us the true purpose of the tafel, using it as a means towards perceiving and experiencing the ikar.[17] He bequeathed the legacy and responsibility of building deeper and more empowering perceptions of the physical world. The physical is not an end in itself- it is meant to serve as a vehicle for transcendent, spiritual, conscious living. This is the battle we face on a daily basis, a battle of perception. Let us be inspired choose empowering paradigms, to peer beneath the surface, to experience the infinite within the physical.


[1] Bereishis 25:22.

[2] For more on the relationship between Olam Habah and Olam Hazeh, see chapter on Parshas Vayigash.

[3] For a fuller explanation of this concept, see chapter on Pesach (located at the end of this sefer), “Passover: Passing Over Time.”

[4] For more on this concept, see chapter on Parshas Vayishlach, section: “Avraham’s Revelation.”

[5] Bereishis 25:27.

[6] Ibid.

[7] This question was particularly relevant for Yitzchak, as Chazal explain that Yitzchak introduced the mitzvah of ma'aser to the world. See Bereishis 26:12 and Rashi there; see also Bereishis Rabbah 64:6.

[8] As opposed to condiments such as ketchup and mustard, which are, themselves, meant to be tasted

[9] This is why Lot’s wife turned into salt as a consequence for turning back to face the destruction of Sedom. In turning around, she expressed ego, as she didn’t deserve to see the destruction of Sedom when she herself was not independently worthy of being saved. As a consequence, she turned into salt, the spiritual representation of tafel, that which is secondary and completely lacks self-importance or ego.

[10] See Commentary of Vilna Gaon to Aggados of Savbei d'vei Atuna, Bechoros Daf 8.

[11] Ovadiah 1:18.

[12] Bereishis Rabbah 65:1 and Vayikra Rabbah 13:5. See Rashi, Bereishis 26:34.

[13] This is why Esav wore Adam's garment, to make himself appear holy on the outside. Yaakov, however, is described as having the ziv hapanim of Adam, the light of Adam's face - true spiritual greatness. This greatness. Was revealed on the outside, but as an expression of something genuine existing within.

[15] See chapter on Parshas Tzav for a fuller explanation of the Beis Ha’Mikdash and its role in connecting the physical and spiritual.

[16] In Jewish thought, one’s child is an expression of one’s self. In essence, everyone and everything that comes from one’s life is an expression of one’s self. Not only does one’s soul not die once they leave the physical world, but the children they had and the actions they did allow for their existence in the physical world to continue as well as part of a larger cosmic ripple effect.

[17] The topic of this chapter will be explored in greater depth in the following chapter.


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