Jacob and Esau

One of the most fundamental principles of Judaism is the belief in human free will. No one is born righteous, and no is born evil; it is the person’s choice to be good or evil. Morality, reward and punishment, and indeed the entire purpose of creation, are all predicated upon free will.  In this week’s portion, Toldot, the Torah describes Esau as a “man of the field, a cunning hunter” and Jacob as a “wholesome person, who dwelt in the tents.”  Doesn’t this description contradict the idea of free will? Doesn’t it describe Esau as being “evil” from birth, and Jacob as being “righteous”?  Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that being a cunning hunter, or ambitious, or even aggressive, does not make one evil. It depends on what one does with those capacities, tendencies and talents. Similarly, being a tranquil, contemplative person does not automatically make one righteous.  As the Talmud says in Tractate Shabbat, one who is born with a “thirst for blood” could be a surgeon, a mohel, a butcher, or a violent criminal.  Rav Hirsch argues that it is the task of the parent or teacher to see that he or she does not suppress the natural tendencies of the child, but rather directs those unique talents toward something productive. He maintains that Esau developed into an evil person because he was given exactly the same education as his tranquil, studious brother, Jacob.  He was not cut out to be a scholar or a philosopher. He could have used his talents positively, in politics, business or in justifiable wars, but when he saw that he was not considered a “success” unless he was exactly like his brother Jacob, he rejected his entire heritage, “and Esau despised the birthright.”  This is not “just” Biblical commentary, but according to Rabbi Hirsch a lesson to all people, in all times.  Trying to fit a child into a mold that does not take her individuality into account can have disastrous consequences.  He acknowledges that in a classroom setting it is extremely difficult to individualize the curriculum, but at home, this is one of parents’ primary responsibilities.

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