Some people live by their appetites. And some people live by their vision. Esau was a man who lived by his appetites. He was a hunter, an outdoorsman — he was called Edom (red) because of his ruddy complexion. Esau lived a life of instant gratification.
We see this appetite most clearly in the story of the lentil soup. Esau returned from the field famished and saw his brother Jacob cooking lentil soup. He traded his birthright to satisfy his appetite with a bowl of soup. The greater privilege of being the first born had no meaning to him when he was hungry.
Esau is not all evil. In fact, it is easy to feel sorry for him as he cried out in pain after his brother stole his blessing. Rabbi Michael Gold notes, Esau wore his emotions on his shirtsleeve. In one scene, he displayed both pain and anger. He made no secret of his intent to murder his brother, forcing Jacob to flee his home and live abroad for 20 years.
Esau also married two local Hittite women, daughters of idolaters, to the consternation of his parents. His sexual appetite overruled his family loyalty. In comparing the twin brothers we can refer to the verse that gives us valuable information: “When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors, but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp” (Genesis 25:27).
Indeed, Jacob was a man of the tent. The rabbis saw him as someone steeped in learning and preparing for taking over the covenant from his father. I certainly do not support his method in stealing his brother’s blessing. (In next week’s portion he is punished for this.) But Jacob was willing to take a long- term view, sacrificing now for future fulfillment. This comes out most clearly when he went to work for seven years before he was allowed to marry his beloved Rachel. (He was given the wrong wife, and then had to work an additional seven years.) Unlike his brother who acted out on his sexual appetite, Jacob delayed gratification for long-term gain.
We sometimes act on our appetites and sometimes we act on our long-term vision. Perhaps we each have a little bit of Jacob and a little bit of Esau within us. Perhaps each of us is involved in an ongoing internal struggle. Do I satisfy my appetite now? Or do I set aside what I want right now, to reap a future reward? This question comes out when we decide whether or not to eat the extra helping of food, act out on a sexual desire, bend the rules for some extra profit, display anger toward loved ones or decide whether or not to apologize for some wrongdoing.
The rabbis have a name for the drive to act out on our appetites without concern for the larger consequences. They call it the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. They also have a name for the drive to do the right thing, even if our appetite is crying out to do otherwise. They call it the yetzer hatov, the good inclination.
It is clear from our tradition that human behavior is never always good or always bad. We are taught that the evil inclination is necessary for us to possess, in order to have the drive to create, to build, to love. Each of us must struggle between our yetzer hatov and yetzer hara.
Who is going to win in this struggle? There is a story from an American Indian elder that is retold by Rabbi David Bockman. The elder was describing his inner struggle: “Inside me are two dogs. One of the dogs is kind and good. The other is mean and evil. The mean dog fights the good dog all the time.”
When asked which dog wins, he reflected for a moment and replied, “The one I feed the most.”
So, when we read about the drives, the ambitions, the desires of the two brothers Esau and Jacob, we should remember that these paradigmatic biblical characters can teach us important lessons about how to respond to the world around us.
Rabbi Larry Raphael is the senior rabbi of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.