“And Yitzchak loved Esav for game was in his mouth, but Rivka loved Yaakov.”
One of the most difficult aspects of Parshas Toldos is Yitzchak Avinu’s preference for Esav over Yaakov Avinu. How could such a great man as Yitzchak believe that Esav was virtuous and more fitting to receive the blessings than his righteous brother? The Be’er Yosef offers an interesting approach to these issues. He explains that there are two types of righteous people. One is a person whose natural character traits are very refined and pure. The other, is one whose natural tendencies are negative, and therefore has to work hard to overcome his yetser hara (evil inclination). He quotes the Yaavetz, who states that the person whose natural inclination is negative is greater.
He explains further that Yitzchak believed both his sons were tzaddikim (righteous), however, he saw that Yaakov was the kind of tzaddik who is born with a natural leaning to good character traits, whereas, Esav was an example of a tzaddik who had to overcome his yetser hara. Yitzchak’s mistake was that he believed Esav had successfully overcome his natural tendencies, where in truth, they had overcome him, driving him on a course of destruction. How could Yitzchak be blind to Esav’s true character?
The Be’er Yosef continues that Yitzchak recognized that Esav was born with the sign of redness, which the gemara tells us is an indication of a bloodthirsty nature. The gemara says that one who is born with this mazal will direct his energies to some form of activity related to spilling blood. If he applies it in a negative way, he will be a thief, however if he directs it positively he will be a shochet or a mohel . Esav became a hunter which the Be’er Yosef equates with a shochet. Yitzchak viewed this as being Esav’s way of channeling his violent tendencies to a positive use. Moreover, he used his hunting to fulfill the Mitzvo of honoring one’s father, by providing Yitzchak with food. In this way, Yitzchak believed that Esav had reached a level of righteousness that was greater than that of Yaakov. He saw that Yaakov’s natural leanings were towards righteousness, therefore Yaakov was less meritorious than Esav, whom, Yitzchak believed, had overcome his yetser hara to become a tzaddik.
It is possible to further develop this idea that Yitzchak preferred to Esav’s perceived form of righteousness. It is well-known that each of the Avos (Forefathers) excelled in one particular character trait. Avraham’s trait was chessed, Yitzchak’s was gevura (strength) , and that of Yaakov was emes (truth). The sefarim hakedoshim explain that both Avraham and Yitzchak bore sons who also had a leaning to the same trait as them, however, they misused that trait, and therefore it became expressed in a negative way. Yishmael epitomized misuse of the trait of chessed , whereas Esav personified the misapplication of gevura. It is instructive to analyze more deeply, the positive aspect of gevura embodied by Yitzchak, and contrast it to its negative application by Esav.
Yitzchak exercised great internal strength throughout his life. His strength was in his ability to conquer any negative inclinations that he may have had, and to nullify his own selfish desires and needs. This resulted in a great level of self-discipline and pure Avodas HaShem whereby Yitzchak’s whole being was fulfilled solely to fulfilling HaShem’s will. Yitzchak saw in Esav the potential to also excel in this trait, and perhaps even to develop it further than Yitzchak could. As the Be’er Yosef explained, Yitzchak saw that Esav had powerful inclinations driving him towards evil, however he felt that if Esav used his natural gevura in the correct way, he could excel greatly in that trait. However, Yitzchak did not realize that Esav directed his gevura for selfish purposes. Instead of utilizing it in the correct way, by controlling himself, Esav used it to control others. Rather than expressing his power through self-discipline, he did it through dominating and overpowering other people. This is most obviously apparent in his profession of hunting, which involved overcoming mighty animals. Moreover, Rashi tells us that Esav was a murderer. Needless to say, Esav paid no heed to strengthening himself internally to control himself, rather Chazal tell us that he was extremely immoral.
Esav’s descendants, in particular, the Romans, emulated Esav in their misuse of the trait of gevura. They were a nation bent on conquering the world for the sake of having immense power. Moreover, like Esav, they had absolutely no interest in the internal strength that involved self-control, rather they were extremely immoral in their lifestyle. It seems that Western, society which is described as being the spiritual descendant of Esav, also attributes great importance to external power, such as the ability to influence other people through one’s wealth. Moreover there is almost no emphasis on self-control; instead, many people’s goals in life involve attaining as much power and personal pleasure as possible.
We have seen how Yitzchak Avinu excelled in the trait of gevura, and that he believed that his son Esav could also exercise this trait to overcome his natural inclinations. However, Esav chose to use his gevura to further his own desires and dominate others. The Torah outlook clearly emphasizes the value of self-control, and deemphasizes the importance of external power. This is most clearly demonstrated in the Mishna in Avos. “Who is strong? He who subdues his inclination, as it says, ‘He who is slow to anger is better than the strong man, and a master of passions is better than a conqueror of a city.” We learn from here that the strength that the Torah acclaims is that which Yitzchak excelled in – overcoming one’s natural inclinations in order to do HaShem’s will. This form of power, the Mishna tells us, is what we should aspire to.
It is true that just as the Avos made particular emphasis on one particular trait, so too each person naturally leans to one such trait. Nevertheless, it is also clear that no matter what one’s natural inclination is, each person needs to express all these traits at some points. Thus, each person must apply the lessons with regard to gevura to his own life. We see from the contrast between Esav and Yitzchak, that one must be very careful to express the trait of gevura in the correct way. It is far easier to apply it in the wrong fashion, using it to dominate or control other people. It is far more difficult, but ultimately far more rewarding, to control oneself. A person who dominates others will still feel himself a slave to his passions, and satisfying these passions will never provide him with true contentment. Whereas, one who has true self-control of himself, can be free to express himself in the optimum fashion. May we all merit to achieve true gevura.