Even before they were born, Yaakov and Esav demonstrated extremely divergent natures. In the womb, Esav showed a propensity for idol worship, whereas Yaakov was drawn to Torah study. When the two babies were born, their physical differences were equally striking. The Torah tells us: “The first emerged red, totally hairy, and they called his name Esav. And after that his brother emerged with his hand grasping the heel of Esav, so he called his name Yaakov….” What can we learn about Esav from the fact that he was born “ready-made”?
The Kli Yakar explains that when a baby is born, it is completely attached to the physical world, in that all five of his senses develop very quickly. Thus he immediately desires physical pleasure. In contrast, his more spiritual qualities, such as wisdom, arise much later. Moreover, a person must gradually work on himself to develop his spiritual side and overcome his natural physical desires. Accordingly, the fact that Esav was born complete indicates that his essence belonged purely to the physical realm. Indeed, this is the significance of his very name, and as we know, a name represents one’s essence. He was called Esav (whose Hebrew root means “do”) because he was already “done,” or “made.” He was born viewing himself as a complete package, and he had no interest in learning from others or growing. Thus, throughout his life Esav indulged in the basest physical behavior, exhibiting no self-control.
In contrast, Yaakov was born incomplete. His name is associated with the word ekev – heel. Yaakov viewed himself as moving toward the end, or culmination, of his life’s work. Additionally, Yaakov’s name is expressed in the future tense, as he understood that he wasn’t a finished product. He constantly had to work to maximize his potential.
Perhaps Esav’s most famous spiritual descendants were the Romans, who dominated most of the known world for centuries. They emulated Esav’s approach to the physical and spiritual in their outlook and actions, as demonstrated by the Midrash: A Roman leader asked Rabbi Akiva whose creation was greater, that of HaShem or that of man. Rabbi Akiva surprisingly answered that man’s creation was greater. For HaShem produces inedible raw material, such as a kernel of wheat, whereas man takes this kernel and, through much toil, makes it into bread. The Midrash tells us that Rabbi Akiva knew the Roman expected him to say HaShem’s creation was greater. The Roman then planned to ask: If so, how dare man perform bris milah, presuming to improve upon HaShem’s creation by cutting away part of the human body? Rabbi Akiva preempted this challenge by stating that man’s creation was greater. How can we understand this Midrash? Isn’t HaShem’s creation in fact infinitely greater than that of man?
It seems that a deeper disagreement underlay this discussion. The Romans emphasized the perfection of man. Emulating the Greeks, they idolized the human body and intellect; man was naturally perfect. Consequently, bris milah was particularly abhorrent to them; it constituted an assault on perfection. Rabbi Akiva represented the Torah belief, that HaShem deliberately created an imperfect world so man could perfect it. That is why He creates a useless kernel of wheat – for man to turn it into something useful. Bris milah symbolizes that man is not born perfect – he has much work to do to harness all his powerful drives and use them for goodness and growth. In contrast, the Romans saw life as one big opportunity for self-gratification, not self-improvement.
We have seen that Esav was innately involved in physicality. In contrast, Yaakov and his descendants are born incomplete – they must devote great effort to overcoming their natural deficiencies and fulfilling their potential. Rav Yitzchak Hutner, ztz”l, notes that stories about great rabbis often portray them as if they were born righteous. They emphasize their perfection, ignoring the tremendous battles they fought in order to become great people. As a result, when we “normal” people read such stories, we tend to despair of our weaknesses and failures. In truth, however, we are all born spiritually incomplete. We must emulate Yaakov Avinu, who was born at the bottom – at the heel – and faced numerous challenges and tests and finally attaining completion.
Notes and Sources
 Rashi, Bereishis 25:22. See Maharal, Gur Aryeh ad loc., which discusses how a fetus has no yetzer hara, yet Esav seemed to act as if he did.
 See Rav Ozer Alport, shlita, Parsha Potpourri, Toldos.
 Yet Esav had the free will to elevate himself beyond his natural tendencies and become a great person.
From the book “Beacons of Light”