Friday, November 20, 2009

Alter of Novardok on Eisav's personality

We all know that Eisav is the bad guy in the parsha right from the outset, but if you just read the pesukim it's hard to figure out why. The facts: he looked red and hairy at birth, he was a man of the field, and next thing we know Ya’akov is trying to get him to surrender the bechorah for a pot of lentils. Rav Shteinman writes that the Torah succinctly says it all with the simple description “man of the field”. It’s not what Eisav did which is significant, but what he didn’t do. The dedication to worldly pursuits at the expense of being “yoshei ohalim” demonstrated a lack of caring for spiritual values. The Chasam Sofer cites the Hafla’ah who noted that Eisav is not just called “ish tzayid” but is “yodeya tzayid” -- “yode’a” in the Biblical sense means connecting with, not just having knowledge of. Eisav felt a connection with the world outside the Beis Midrash, not with what took place within its walls.

This emphasis on rejection of the hallowed study hall as the root of all evil will undoubtedly strike some as dismissive of those who do not have the fortitude to be "yosheiv ohalim". Is there no middle ground between the life of being "yosheiv ohalim" and becoming an Eisav? As Rav Hirsch seems to indicate, is it perhaps that lack of a middle ground that contributes to making Eisav in the first place? Leaving those questions for food for thought, I want to present an approach taken by the Alter of Novardok in Madreigas haAdam (Darkei haChaim ch 1-4) where he devotes a few chapters to the personality of Eisav and explaining why Yitchak wanted to bless him.

What made Ya'akov so sure that Eisav would sell him the birthright? Why did he even think the topic was open for discussion? When Eisav comes back from the field, it is a house of mourning that he enters. Rashi tells us that Ya'akov was cooking lentils because Avraham had died; lentils were a traditional food of mourning because they symbolically represent the circle of life and death that follows us all. Eisav takes no note of the context, the type of food and why it is being served, and instead just demands some of the "red stuff" in the pot. He does not see the situation beyond what the momentary demand of his appetite allowed for. The Alter explains that it is the failure to pause and take stock is the hallmark of Eisav. It's too late to attempt to learn mussar in the midst of a trying situation or after desire has taken over. Mussar is about cultivating the power to pause and appreciate a situation fully or to consider all the ramifications that follow from a choice before acting. Seeing that Eisav was governed by impulse and not given to reflection was the clue that the bechorah, the service in Mikdash which demanded discipline and sacrifice of immediate needs for long term reward, was not for Eisav.

We should not yet so easily dismiss Eisav as either lacking in emunah or not recognizing the value of the precious gift of bechorah which he held. As Rashi tells us, Eisav asked Ya'akov what the bechorah meant before surrendering it and it was only the demand to abstain from wine or suffer death for profaning the avodah which dissuaded Eisav from keeping his treasure. But why do we fault Eisav? Imagine the yeshiva bachur who decides he is just not cut out for learning and instead should pursue a lucrative career. He knows that learning has its rewards, but he also recognizes that a true Torah lifestyle of "pas b'melach tochal" has challenges which are not to be treated lightly. Should we fault the choice to give up the rewards given the assessment that the challenges and demands are too great?

Here the Alter has what I think is a profound insight. Were Eisav really honest with himself, he would acknowledge that it's not the threat of death for failure which dissuaded him from accepting the role of bechor -- it's the desire for that cup of wine. Any step upward in ruchniyus carries with it greater demands and responsibilities. It is easier to excuse ourselves as unworthy of lofty goals or not capable of rising to meet great challenges than to admit that it's the enjoyment of the position we are in now that weighs us down. Faced with the option of pursuing a lucrative career or spending a few more years learning, can a bachur say b'lev shaleim that the draw of money, the freedom to live a more relaxed religious lifestyle, the desire to see or be part of the world, etc. all play no role and have no influence on his decision of which path to pursue -- it's a purely disinterested and intellectually objective calculation? Or is he perhaps selling his bechorah for a cup of wine and using supposed lack of ability as an excuse? I am merely using this scenario as an example and do not mean to suggest that every decision to not stay in learning forever is wrong or a surrender to worldly temptation. The point is that objectivity is hard to maintain when an easy way out is present, and all kinds of good excuses and rationalizations that are not easy to penetrate can disguise lazy surrender as the greater good.

How can we tell if we are being honest with ourselves or just making excuses to remain in a comfort zone? After the sale Eisav despised the bechorah. Why? If I see a painting by Rembrandt or hear a symphony by Mozart I don't feel angry or jealous; I know these people have gifts which I lack. If the bechorah was not meant for Eisav, if he truly did not think he was fit for the position, then why the harsh reaction if someone else steps up to the plate? The difference is that while I know I am not Mozart or Rembrandt, Eisav in his heart knew that he did have the kochos hanefesh to be the true bechor and was just making excuses to allow himself to follow temptation. Seeing someone else with the same ability who offers no excuses but instead rises to meet the challenge is what grates on the nerves. If Ya'akov is the paradigm of truth, his opposite, Eisav, is a paradigm of falsehood. The false image of himself which Eisav shows his father is but a small lie compared to immense lie which he tells himself, the web of excuses disguised as objective calculation that he uses to justify pursuing a direction that he forever will regret.

What the Alter is trying to teach us is that we often fail (as he writes) not because emes is so hard, but because sheker is so easy. The inner struggle between ratzon and seichel can be won only only if we are willing to strip away the facade and look at ourselves and life in a brutally honest fashion.


  1. Very nice ideas. One comment: You said "can a bachur say b'lev shaleim that the draw of money, the freedom to live a more relaxed religious lifestyle, the desire to see or be part of the world" Why in the world would you say live a more relaxed religious lifestyle? I take offense to this and from what I understand of you, you should also. Are you telling me that because you are working you live a more relaxed religious lifestyle than had you been learning??

    Just because someone is working and making a living does not by default mean they will be living a more relaxed religious lifestyle. True, there will be less learning, but that has nothing to do with religious lifestyle. SOmeone who works and is kovea itim latorah, goes to minyan three times a day and follows all the mitzvos with a leiv shalem is in no way living a more relaxed religious lifestyle. I can not imagine why you think that.

    If anything getting a job is a more tedious religious lifestyle. When I was in Yeshiva I could go to minyan at 7:45, eat breakfast, start learning from 9-12- go to shiur from 12-1, break from 1-3, mincha from 3-315, afternoon seder from 315-6, break from 6-8 then seder from 8-10 and maariv. That was a much easier lifestyle than medical school. Wake up for vasikin every day. Go to school from 8-5, mincha, come home and study for three hours. Then go learn a little and daven maariv. Come home and study some more. I think that it takes much more dedication to be working and being a religious Jew than being in Yeshiva. Maybe you disagree, but to say that getting a Job is a more relaxed religious lifestyle is falsifying the truth.

    Now, there are a lot of people that get jobs and become less religious, but that is not a requirement in any way. there are also a lot of yeshiva guys who sit in the hallway and smoke all day and do not learn.

  2. The book "Novaradok" illustrates how the Alter and his talmidim lived such a "brutally honest" life. I found it very inspiring.
    But as my rebbe reminds me when I am too hard on myself, "there is a reason why Novaradok isn't around anymore."