In this week’s Torah portion, we see that while Esau is a man of violent nature, Jacob is very much his opposite. The Sages tell us that even in the womb, when Rebecca passed a Temple of idols, Esau would be pushing to get out, and when she passed a place of Torah study, Jacob did the same. This is not necessary literal, but the point is clear – from their very conception, Esau was pulled toward evil and Jacob towards good.
But how can that be? Surely free will is the cornerstone of Jewish philosophy! How can these two boys be held responsible for their actions if they were programmed in this way from day one?
The answer is clear. Each of us faces different challenges. Some are born with an angry disposition. Some are born with a sensual nature. Some are born with a nature that yearns for money. Some are born lazy. For each human being the test is different. That’s why we cannot compare, nor can we judge. Who are we to know the challenges with which another is faced?
Esau was born with a violent nature. His challenge in life was to subdue it, to harness his passion, and channel it into bringing positive change to the world. He would use his anger in the spiritual battle against evil. Use his passion to bring others to truth. He was not forced to walk down a path of murder and debauchery. It was a path he very much chose for himself.
That’s fine for Esau, but what of Jacob? Where was his test?
Jacob’s test was much more subtle in nature. The challenge of the math genius is whether he will push himself to his fullest potential, or be satisfied with being just one step ahead of the crowd. I can’t help but feel when I see a rabbi who was brought up in a Torah society, whether he would be the same person if his background had been less sheltered. Greatness lies not in where you get, but in how far you come. The destination doesn’t matter as much as the journey.
To become a righteous person – after having that nature from birth and being brought up in Isaac’s holy home – was no great challenge for Jacob. The question was whether he was going to become more than that. Would he going to strive for greatness instead of just goodness? Jacob could have settled for mediocrity in the same way as his brother settled for immorality. And had he done so, his mistake would have been equal to Esau’s.
Set your sights high in life. That’s why you’re here.