Yaakov and Eisav, Tzadik and Rasha: Beyond the Labels

Rabbi Dr. Darrel Ginsberg

Throughout Jewish history, we are confronted with the clash between tzadik and rasha, the person reflecting the ways of God and the individual committed to the destruction of those ways. More often than not, the two individuals are from completely different backgrounds, their first encounter is the establishment of the relationship. In this week’s parsha, we again are introduced to the ideological divergence of two individuals, Yaakov and Eisav. What makes them so unique is that they were twins, raised in the same household, their relationship beginning in the womb. Yet they ended up on opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum, one as the future of Judaism and the other the antithesis of Jewish ideology and values. Studying their development, one would think the distinction between the two would be clear – and yet, as will be shown, they did not actually seem so different at first.                     

The Torah famously tells us (Bereishis 25:22) that during Rivkah’s pregnancy, the two children “clashed inside her.” Rashi, based on the Midrash, offers his famous analysis of this struggle within the womb (ibid):

“Our Sages explain it as having the meaning of moving quickly: When she would pass the doorways of Torah study of Sheim and Eiver, Yaakov would agitate and rush to come out. When she would pass doorways of idol-worshipers, Eisav would agitate to come out.”

The distinction between these two individuals could not be any clearer: Eisav, the penultimate rasha, Yaakov, the paradigm tzadik. 

Soon after, the Torah tells us (ibid, 27) that the two became older. Rashi (ibid), again citing a Midrash, offers an interesting analysis:

“As long as they were little they were indistinguishable by their deeds and no one could know their exact character. Once they turned thirteen, one [Yaakov] went his way to houses of study and the other went his way to worshipping idols.”

This presents a clear contradiction to the previous statement by Rashi. Before they were even born, Yaakov and Eisav were being identified based on each one’s particular ideological identities. And yet when they were born, and until the age of thirteen, it seems as though there was nothing whatsoever distinguishing the two. Which was it then?

We must have a basic insight into the first Midrash in order to help resolve this contradiction.  Obviously, to imagine a scenario where the two yet-to-be-born brothers were moving only when passing certain types of buildings raises all sorts of difficult questions – a literal reading would be out of order here. What concept is being taught? Yaakov and Eisav’s births did not mean they emerged immediately as tzadik and rasha. However, the Midrash is indicating that both sons had certain innate tendencies, personality traits that were part of their development even before birth. These innate characteristics meant that both Eisav and Yaakov possessed the psychological framework that could lead each one down opposite roads. There is a similar description found in the circumcision of a son that emphasizes this point. At a bris, the final bracha recited starts off with a reference to God Who “sanctified the beloved one from the womb.” Tosafos (Shabbos 137b) explains that, based on the Talmud in Menachos, the beloved referred to here is Avraham. Understanding that there was a unique relationship between Avraham and God is obvious. However, what does it mean he was sanctified from the womb? If Avraham truly was sanctified in the womb, why would it have taken him forty years to discover God? Upon his birth, he should have immediately destroyed his father’s idols! Obviously, to take this concept literally is quite difficult, to say the least. The explanation, then, is similar to that of Eisav and Yaakov. It would seem that Avraham also had certain innate personality traits that would be of great assistance and importance in his role as the progenitor of monotheism. These characteristics would only play their part if he made the right decisions in life. The key point here is that to assume that the life decisions for all these great people were determined before their birth does not make sense – instead, it refers to tendencies and traits.

This opening helps clarify the second Midrash. Both Eisav and Yaakov had inborn personality traits pointing in opposite directions. The Midrash emphasizes, though, that there was nothing whatsoever distinguishing the two at an early age. In a society enamored with labeling people, one would think that someone as “evil” as Eisav would demonstrate those “evil” behaviors at a very early age. This assumption might be true when discussing a sociopath. The same could be argued regarding Yaakov, that one might think his righteousness would be on display at the earliest possible age – maybe pre-school enrollment at Yeshivas Shem V’Ever. Yet Yaakov seemed to act no differently than Eisav early on in their lives. This drives home a crucial point, namely that ideological directions are the results of conscious decisions. It is man’s choice to be the tzadik or rasha, not some sort of pre-determined fate. It is no coincidence that the Midrash focuses on the age of thirteen. As we all know, it is at this age that a young man becomes obligated in all mitzvos. His intellectual and psychological developments are at the point that he can benefit from the ideas of the mitzvos, a monumental step in his life. At this stage in life, the ability to make these decisions, to exercise his bechira, comes to the forefront. So too with Yaakov and Eisav. They were not “forced” to become the future of the Jewish people or the paradigm of evil – they were conscious decisions by each of them.

The Midrash does offer one other important point, which helps unify the above ideas. Both Eisav and Yaakov had these innate traits that would play a significant role in the lifestyles they would choose. It is interesting, however, that there was nothing obvious in their actions as to which direction each would take. Parents tend to get fixated on actions alone when dealing with their children. It is always a source of pride that one’s child scored well on an exam, read a difficult book, or hit the home run. This might even lead to “bragging rights,” discussing with other parents how little Timmy is just such a great kid. However, the Midrash is pointing out that while the actions of both Yaakov and Eisav were indistinguishable, this does not mean their motives were identical. The same action, whether it be something minor or something monumental, can have a completely different effect on the child depending on what is driving him to that behavior. Our concern must be focused as much on what drives our children to act the way they do as the results of their actions. This concept reflects our approach to mitzvos as well. The action of picking up a lulav, for example, has limited benefit to the participant if he does not understand why he is doing it and what is motivating him to act in this manner. Clearly, here, the fact that Eisav and Yaakov never acted in a manner that separated their identities did not necessarily mean they were not different people. 

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be proud of our children’s accomplishments or concerned when they act out, but making assumptions on a child’s future on the basis of their actions as children is clearly impossible—if Yaakov and Esav couldn’t be differentiated, who can? It is fascinating that we turn to two people who personified the identity of tzadik and rasha to understand how we should shy away from simplistic labels and self-indulging conclusions about our children. We should always keep in mind that as much as we want what is best for our children, ultimately it is their decision that will determine the type of life they ultimately live.