The story of Esau and Jacob is a beautiful yet challenging story within the book of Genesis. Part of an origin tale of the third Patriarch this section of the Torah paints a picture of the young Jacob, his Hebrew name implies, as a heel. Jacob tricks his hairier, earthier older brother (by a few seconds) not once, but two times. Jacob takes advantage of Esau’s hunger and poor impulse control and then, with the help of his mother, takes advantage of his father’s advanced age and failing eyesight. This final act of trickery leaves Esau without the family blessing that comes with the leadership of the descendants of Abraham. But, Esau more than anything wants his father’s innermost blessing. He cries out from the deepest part of his soul, “have you father, one blessing for me?”
A memorable vignette within the first book of the bible, Esau and Jacob’s story on the surface is simple; one brother is earthy and one ethereal, one brother is outdoors while the other one is indoors. Opposites with conflicting agendas, the Eternal One warns mother Rebecca that two nations, two distinct people are growing in her belly and that the younger will be served by the elder. What does this story have to say beyond the simple understanding of sibling rivalry?
According to Chabad Kabbalah, the human is endowed with two basic souls. These are known as the animal soul and the spiritual soul. The animal soul is responsible for our animal needs, such as hunger or the need for shelter and protection, while the spiritual soul has higher aspirations and is responsible for lifting the person beyond their material and physical needs to the level of transformation and transcendence. These two souls exist simultaneously in a human and they are, at times, in conflict with one another.
This conflict between the two types of soul animating a person is described allegorically in the Biblical story of Esau and Jacob. Esau the hunter represents our animal souls, impulsive, hungry, and basic. Jacob represents our higher non-material aspirations as the spiritual soul. The rabbis portray Jacob as someone who likes to sit inside and study the Torah and, like the spiritual soul, Jacob is someone who goes through an evolutionary transformation as he steps in to the role of more responsibility and merits the name “Israel.” In the tradition of Kabbalah the story of Esau and Jacob is a struggle for power between two forces within every person, the animal and the spiritual.
This struggle is really between two inclinations, the inclination for good and the inclination for negativity. In Hebrew they are called the yeitzer tov and the yeitzer ha-ra. These inclinations wrestle with each other in the effort to exert dominance on the other. Jacob, who represents the inclination for good and the spiritual soul, cleverly finds a way to relieve his older twin brother from his possession of the birthright as the spiritual soul has an innate intelligence. And Esau who is animal in nature and represents the inclination for negativity is powerful and impatient.
The story of Jacob and Esau and the blessings and birthright, through the lens of Kabbalah, seems to have a hope that the spiritual will prevail but not necessarily over the animal, rather both inclinations will prevail and serve each other. And this reconciliation between animal and spiritual is the ultimate goal. One exclusively serving the other would defeat the purpose of each inclination strengthening each other to support the person in their goal toward self realization and actualization. The animal and the earthy are all enhanced by a consciousness of their spiritual sources and, spirituality is enhanced when it is expressed even in the fulfilling of basic needs.
Isaac certainly gives Jacob the blessing designated for Esau but he also ultimately bestows a blessing on Esau with similar phrases. Both brothers are blessed as they find out at the conclusion of their story. They reunite after 20 years apart. All is forgiven as they hug it out, sharing with each other that they have achieved all that they need, and although they part ways they live with the feeling of contentment and closure each accepting and respecting the other brother from the same mother.
And, so too, when we equalize our inclinations in order for them to support one another we can become balanced, in terms of our animal soul and spiritual soul, and can see the Divine in all aspects of our existence, in every corner of the universe, in the hairy and smooth, the indoors and outdoors, and the red and the white…