Are people predestined for either greatness or for evil? Does spirituality just come easier for some people than it does for others? It certainly seems that way quite often. But how can that be true when we all know that one of the central themes in Jewish thought is that we all have free choice, that our spiritual greatness is in our hands and our hands alone.
In this week’s Torah portion we are introduced to a character named Esav. Esav didn’t seem to have very much going for him. Already in the womb he was trying to make a break for it whenever his mother would pass a house of idol worship. He was born with a red complexion, indicative of his thirst to spill blood. In his early years he was ready to trade away spiritual eternity, for temporary worldly pleasures. It certainly seems that Esav was predestined for evil, doesn’t it?
But the Torah puts a very interesting spin on the whole thing by telling us that “Yitzchak loved Esav”. Then in his old age, Yitzchak seeks to give the blessings to Esav who had already grown into a full blown villain. Apparently Yitzchak saw a hidden potential even in Esav that made him worthy of being the candidate to receive this blessing.
We can gain insight into this, by getting to know another famous biblical personality, King David. We see in the book of Samuel that King David was “red-haired, with beautiful eyes, and good looking (Samuel 16:12).” The Midrash teaches that when Samuel, who anointed David as king of Israel, first saw that David was red-headed he was smitten with fear, thinking he might be a murderer. But God reassured him that while Esav killed impulsively, David would only slay for the sake of God.
The comparison between these two red-heads is certainly profound. It seems as if Esav and King David really had the same inner tendencies except Esav allowed that inner drive to rule over him, whereas David took complete control. Esav’s greatest weakness, was the key to King David becoming the greatest leader the Jewish people have ever known.
So what was this inner tendency that the two shared and how did it favor King David but bring the downfall of Esav?
Yitzchak understood that Esav’s lust for the physical world could be used to elevate the mundane to a holy place. His lust for food and pleasure could be channeled towards growing his love for God, a task that his lofty brother Jacob could not accomplish, as he was “too spiritual” and disconnected from the corporeal world.
Yitzchak saw this great potential in Esav and was ready to bless him with all the blessings of the finite world. It was to be his task to engage in a world of impurity so that his spiritually inclined brother Yaakov could be free to be immersed in spirituality. But Esav didn’t feel it was worth the effort. “Why do I need it? I’m going to die anyway.” Once that decision was made, it became the job of Yaakov to step in, to leave the sheltered world he was immersed in and take on the mission of lighting up the finite world. For this reason the blessings rightfully belonged to him.
No one is predestined for greatness and no one is predestined for evil. But we are all predestined to struggle. The greater the challenge, the greater the potential. Through Torah study, we are able to identify our weaknesses, and not only overcome them, but turn them into our greatest strengths.