The Personality of Esau

Rabbi Israel Chait

Transcribed by students

Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife who was barren. God listened to Isaac’s prayer, and Rebecca became pregnant. Rebecca noticed that her pregnancy was unusual. She was pregnant with twins and there seemed to be an internal struggle within her. When she passed the Beth Midrash (study hall) Jacob sought to get out. Upon passing a place of idol worship, Esau wanted to go forth. God thereby informed Rebecca that the children she was carrying would be the forbearers of two great nations. These two children were going to be two great warriors. One child would devote his energies to the conquest of the external world. The second child would concentrate his abilities on the conquest of the internal world. The two children were not ordinary people, but possessed excessive energies and the abundant talent and ability to mold the external world. 

Isaac admired Esau’s abundant energies. He respected his abilities as a conqueror. He was an individual whose countenance demanded respect. However Isaac made one miscalculation. He thought that Esau would exploit his abilities as a conqueror and assist Jacob in spreading the teachings of the Torah. The Torah likewise, in its description of Esau, recognizes and respects Esau’s unique abilities. The Torah appreciates the greatness embodied in the personality of the conqueror. There is a Midrash (allegory) that compares the personalities of the Grand Rabbi Judah the Prince, and the wicked Antiochos. They both reflect man’s ability of conquest. One excelled in the world of the ideational and one in the world of the physical. 

We must appreciate the personality of the conqueror as one who perfects himself in physical conquest and is deserving of admiration. The Torah recognizes and pays tribute to the unique qualities of such an individual. Most people possess dependent personalities. They are incapable of progress and lack the ability of stepping forward and mastering the universe. Man unconsciously desires to perpetuate the state of infancy, which is essentially a protected state of dependency. An individual who conquers the physical world and is successful in his exploits has shattered this infantile state of dependency. Only such an individual is capable of accomplishment. 

Courage is the ability of a person to use his inner strength and to step out into reality. This courage is manifested in an individual’s mastery of either the intellectual world or in the sphere of the physical. Most people are content in following societal patterns and live a dependent life, and thus, are not truly successful in their endeavors. They are in trepidation of facing reality, which demands that a person leave the protective life of his early development. A conqueror is an individual who possesses the courage to leave the security that society offers and face the challenges of the external world. A person can utilize his courage and “step out”, making progress in two worlds; the world of the intellectual or the world of the physical. Rebecca’s two sons represented two courageous individuals who had the courage to face the external world and the internal world. 

The Rabbis respected this personality as evidenced in halacha. An “ashir muflag”, an extremely rich person, can be called up to the Torah before a Kohane. Such an individual has utilized his intellect and has displayed the courage to go out into the world and conquer it. 

It is important to draw a distinction to the hero. A hero possesses false courage. He simply seeks to go against the norms of society in order to achieve hero status. The hero’s drive is not based upon the quest of reality. The hero does not utilize his intellect as a demonstration of courage. 

An understanding of the personality of Esau can also help us appreciate the incident concerning the sale of his birthright. The book of Genesis beginning at Chapter 25, verse 29 and through the remainder of the chapter, recites the circumstances of the sale. Esau returned from hunting in the field and was hungry and exhausted. He thereby asks Jacob for some of his red pottage of lentils. Jacob in turn purchases Esau’s birthright for the pottage. Esau comments, “behold I am going to die and thus I have no need for the birthright”. The Torah thereby concluded Chapter 25 with Verse 34, “And Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way, so Esau despoiled his birthright.” 

The Torah says that the day of the sale was the day Abraham died. Esau had displayed a strong affection and respect for Abraham. During Abraham’s life Esau did not stray onto the path of the wicked. Abraham was a super-ego figure, a true tzaddik, a righteous person. Esau had strong instinctual proclivities but he saw Abraham as an image of immortality because Abraham was righteous. This image of Abraham prevented him from sinning. Esau projected upon Abraham the image of immortality, because he was a truly righteous individual. Esau was an instinctual being and during Abraham’s life he did not succumb to the life of the instinctual. Esau viewed Abraham as being immortal. This fantasy of immortality prevented Esau from living the life of a wicked person. Upon Abraham’s death his fantasy of immortality was shattered. Esau wrongfully concluded that there was no concept of reward, since he only viewed reward in terms of the physical. However a chacham, a wise man, appreciates the true reward. 

The Midrash says concerning Abraham’s death, “al tivku l’mase”, do not cry for his death. Abraham had achieved true immortality. The ideational part of man, which is not subject to the constraints of the physical, lives on. However, Esau, the instinctual being could not appreciate true eternity. Thus the Midrash says one should cry for Esau. The death of a wicked person, one whose existence was solely in the realm of the physical, truly marks his end. 

Esau, upon selling his birthright to Jacob, commented that the birthright had no value for him because he was going to die. The death of Abraham made him acutely cognizant of his own mortality. He thereby rejected any concept of reward and punishment. Thus, after the sale, the Torah made a point of reciting that, Esau did “eat, drink, rose up, went his way and despoiled his birthright”. This critical juncture represented the commencement of Esau’s submission to his instinctual needs and the dedication of his life to the physical. This is attested to as it states that when Esau came from the field be was tired. The Rabbis tell us that Esau had already killed someone this day and had raped an engaged girl. The attraction of the physical is the fantasy. When one commits a sin it is because he is usually overwhelmed by the allurement of the fantasy. However, after one commits the sin he realizes that the satisfaction is fleeting. The energies, which were propelled by the fantasy are diminished. The reality rarely conforms to the anticipation of the fantasy. Thus, Esau was tired because his energies were not fully satisfied. The commission of the sins did not satiate his physical energies. 

Normally a wicked person, after committing a sin, does not feel tired because he channels the energies to the ego. The conqueror’s sense of accomplishment removes the frustration which otherwise would result when the power of the fantasy is dissipated. However Esau felt tired, he was “ayef”. After Abraham’s death, he committed the sins because he was overwhelmed by the physical desires. Abraham’s death had removed all impediments from sinning. However, he was not satisfied after the performance of the chate, the sin. His ego ideal was still Abraham. He had not yet attached his ego to accomplishment in the realm of physical conquests. Thus, he was exhausted after the sin because all he had was the frustrated energy of the sin. Later on in life, as Esau became the man of physical conquests, he did not feel exhaustion. The frustrated energy was satisfied by the ego ideal of the physical man. He was successful in transferring the physical man - the conqueror - as his ego-ideal in Abraham’s stead. 

The Torah gives us the insight and opportunity to appreciate the personality of Esau and analyze the events in his life as he developed into the persona of a rasha, a wicked person. Therefore the Torah is unique in recognizing, that although the lifestyle of a rasha is not a value, which we aspire to, the personality of the rasha must be analyzed and recognized as a creature of the Creator.