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The Relationship Between Yaakov and Esav that Could Have Been (Parshas Vayeitzei)

parsha sefer bereishis Nov 10, 2021



There was an elderly carpenter who was ready to retire. He told his boss of his plans to leave the house-building industry in order to enjoy a more leisurely lifestyle with his wife. He would miss the weekly paycheck, but he was ready to retire, and they could get by on his savings. The contractor was sorry to see his best worker go and asked if the carpenter could build just one more house as a personal favor to him. The carpenter was reluctant, as he really was ready to retire, but the contractor pushed him until he relented. However, it soon became clear that his heart was just not in it. He resorted to shoddy, hasty workmanship and used inferior materials. It was an unfortunate way to end a dedicated career. When the carpenter finished his work, his boss came to inspect the house. He then handed the keys to the carpenter and said, “This is your house, as my parting gift to you.”

The carpenter was shocked! If only he had known he was building his own house, he would have invested so much more effort.

The same is true of our lives as well. Through every day and every action, we are building our own home, our eternal existence. The mind we’re building, the views we attach ourselves to, the thoughts we generate - this is the reality that we live in. If we were aware of this, we would be so much more careful with how we laid down each brick. Let us take a deeper look at Parshas Vayeitzei and see how this idea connects to Yaakov Avinu’s role in this world.


Yaakov vs. Esav


In the previous chapter,[1] we discussed the cosmic battle between Yaakov and Esav, the battle between ikar and tafel. To review, the ikar (primary) is the inner essence and main entity, while the tafel (secondary) is that which enables the ikar to flourish. 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 all of physicality to fully reflect its spiritual root.

Both Yaakov and Esav wanted 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, on the other hand, sought to use the animation of the soul to indulge in the physical. Essentially, Esav flipped the ikar and tafel; he viewed the physical as ikar (main) and the spiritual as tafel (secondary), a necessary instrument for experiencing the physical world. This was the battle between Yaakov and Esav: a battle of ikar versus tafel, a battle of perception.


The Relationship That Could Have Been


Originally, Yaakov and Esav were meant to work together, in a synthesized, harmonious partnership. Yaakov would perfect the spiritual, the ikar, while Esav would perfect the physical, the tafel, creating a perfect vessel for Yaakov. The spiritual (Yaakov) was meant to imbue and fully manifest within the physical (Esav). Together, they would have converged to become a single, cohesive unit, working as one.


Yitzchak saw this potential within Esav, which is why he originally sought to give Esav the brachos (blessings). However, a careful reading of the Torah makes it clear that Yitzchak intended to bless both Yaakov and Esav – Esav for the physical domain, and Yaakov for the spiritual domain. This is why Yitzchak ultimately gave Yaakov two sets of brachos - the one intended for Esav,[2] and the one he always planned to give Yaakov (mentioned at the end of Parshas Toldos).[3] This was a recognition of Yaakov and Esav's unique roles- Esav as the physical vessel, and Yaakov as the spiritual essence.

However, Esav corrupted his mission, and instead of perfecting the physical as a loyal vessel for the spiritual, he isolated the physical as an end in itself, completely disconnecting it from the spiritual. When Yaakov saw this, he realized that Esav would not fulfill his part of their partnership. He therefore decided to intervene and buy the bechora, taking on Esav’s role in addition to his own. Yaakov now became responsible for both aspects of their intended partnership: perfecting the spiritual and perfecting the physical.[4]


Based on this, the statement Yaakov made to Yitzchak when he received the brachos - "I am Esav, your firstborn"[5]- was actually true. Yaakov did not lie to Yitzchak, rather he revealed a deep truth. Yaakov had undergone an existential metamorphosis. He took on Esav's role, and in a deep way, became Esav. In respect to his spiritual role, Yaakov was now both Yaakov and Esav. Yaakov, the pillar of truth, didn't lie to Yitzchak; he revealed the inner truth of this new spiritual identity, his new spiritual role.[6]


Yaakov, Rachel, and Leah


This idea completely transforms our perception of Yaakov's relationship with Rachel and Leah. As Rashi explains, Rachel was destined to marry Yaakov, and Leah was originally destined to marry Esav, which is why she constantly cried.[7] However, once Yaakov tool over Esav’s role, he marries both Rachel and Leah, a reflection of his new dual role.


Marriage is an existential bond where two opposites combine into a harmonious oneness.[8] Esav’s orientation and mission were completely physical, and he was therefore meant to marry Leah, a woman who was completely spiritual. She was destined to help Esav manifest control over the physical world, in order to perfect it and prepare it for Yaakov’s spiritual mission.


The same dynamic applied to Yaakov and Rachel. Yaakov, who was completely spiritual (“Ish tam yoshev ohalim”[9]), was destined to marry Rachel, whose strength lay in her ability to properly use the physical. Rachel embodied the perfection of physicality and was the ideal partner to help Yaakov connect his spiritual potency to the physical world. This is why Rachel is described as physically beautiful[10], and why Yosef, their son, is the only male in the Torah who is described as physically beautiful.[11] Rachel's physical beauty reflected her role: Her physical body loyally reflected her spiritual soul[12], and her mission was to help Yaakov fully manifest the spiritual within the physical world.[13]


Change of Plans


However, as Esav continued down the wrong path, Yaakov and Rivka saw that he wouldn't play the role he was meant to. As such, the plan had to change. Once Yaakov bought the bechora from Esav, he took over both roles; he became both Yaakov and Esav. Accordingly, he now had to marry both Rachel and Leah! The Yaakov in him had to marry Rachel, and the Esav in him had to marry Leah. Consequently, when Lavan tricked Yaakov, it wasn't regarding his marriage to Leah, but only the order in which he would marry her. Instead of marrying Rachel first, he was tricked into marrying Leah first. But he was going to marry Leah all along!


Yisachar and Zevulun


Although the ideal relationship between Yaakov and Esav became corrupted, a similar partnership would ultimately be achieved later in history, by a different set of brothers. At the end of Sefer Devarim, Moshe Rabbeinu gives brachos to all of the shevatim (tribes of Israel). He blesses Yissachar and Zevulun together, saying “Rejoice, Zevulun, in your departure, and Yisachar in your tents.”[14] Rashi[15] explains, based on the midrash[16], that Yisachar and Zevulun worked as partners: The tribe of Zevulun lived on the seashore and departed on ships to trade and make profit, while the tribe of Yisachar remained in their tents and learned Torah. Zevulun provided for both tribes, and they shared in the merits of Yisachar’s Torah learning.


This could have been the relationship between Yaakov and Esav; Yaakov would have fulfilled the role of Yisachar, perfecting the spiritual, while Esav would have fulfilled the role of Zevulun, devoting his life to bringing the spiritual down into the physical, actualizing spiritual potential. But once Esav strayed, Yaakov took over both roles.


Originally, Yisachar would have come from Yaakov and Zevulun would have come from Esav. However, once Yaakov took over Esav’s role, he now held the potential for both Yisachar and Zevulun, which is why both of them were born to Yaakov. It is strange, though, that both Yisachar and Zevulun came from Leah. Shouldn’t one of them have come from Rachel? 


I would like to suggest an answer which I think beautifully reflects everything we've discussed so far. Originally, Yaakov was meant to have Yisachar with Rachel, representing the role of perfecting the spiritual, while Esav was meant to have Zevulun with Leah, representing the role of perfecting the physical. However, once Yaakov took over Esav's role, he was meant to have both Yisachar and Zevulun: Yisachar with Rachel and Zevulun with Leah. Yet, we find a fascinating and enigmatic scene that takes place between Rachel and Leah. After having difficulty conceiving more children, Rachel sold her right to be with Yaakov to Leah in exchange for the duda'im, hoping it would help her become pregnant. What happened right after this sale? The very next pasuk tells us that Leah gave birth to Yisachar! In other words, in return for the duda'im, Rachel sold her rights to have Yisachar. Leah now became the mother of both Yisachar and Zevulun. Soon afterwards, Rachel was zocheh to have Yosef.


Our Role


We are entrusted with the power of choice; we can choose how to use the potential we are given, how to see the physical world, and how to live our lives. We must ask ourselves: "What kind of house am I building?" Are we building a broken, sloppy house? Or are we building something beautiful and majestic, something we have invested in and committed ourselves towards? Let's follow in Yaakov's footsteps, and find our unique role within the Yisachar-Zevulun partnership; let's focus on harmony, synthesis, and oneness, as opposed to machlokes, breakdown, and turmoil. Our journey in life is like building a skyscraper; every day is another brick, another opportunity to add to our eternal self, our eternal existence. The end result is the product of every bit of effort that we invested. May we be inspired to devote our lives to building the extraordinary, so that one day we can look back and see the beautiful skyscraper we have built.


[1] See chapter on Parshas Toldos.

[3] Bereishis 28:1-4. This blessing focuses on Yaakov creating the spiritual seeds of the Jewish People.

[4] For a fuller discussion of this chapter’s topic in regards to the relationship between the Jewish People and the Greeks, see chapter on the holiday of Chanukah (located at the end of this sefer), entitled: “Re-Examining Our Ideological Battle Against the Greeks”.

[5] Bereishis 27:19.

[6] It is important to note that Esav’s descendants still have the opportunity to play an important role in the world. Rav Yehuda Ha'Nasi (a descendant of Yaakov) was able to build an ideal ikar-tafel relationship with Antoninus (a descendant of Esav/Rome).

[7] Rashi, Bereishis 29:17.

[8] Each maintains their sense of individuality, and yet simultaneously, finds themselves within a whole greater than the sum of the two parts. For more on the topic of marriage, see chapters on Parshas Chayei Sarah and Parshas Ki Seitzei.

[9] Bereishis 25:27.

[10] Bereishis 29:17.

[11] In Tanach, Avshalom and Adoniyahu are also classified as such, which requires a deeper discussion.

[12] For a fuller discussion of the concept and purpose of beauty, see chapter on Parshas Mikeitz.

[13] It’s also interesting to note that Esav, the oldest son, was meant to marry Leah, the oldest daughter; and Yaakov, the youngest son, was meant to marry Rachel, the youngest daughter.

[14] Devarim 33:18.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Bereishis Rabbah 99:9.


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