Torah Study

Yitzchak and Esav – Using and Abusing Power

“And Yitzchak loved Esav for game was in his mouth, but Rivkah loved Yaakov.”[1]

One of the most difficult aspects of the stories of Yitzchak Avinu and his two sons, Yaakov and Esav, is Yitzchak’s preference for Esav over Yaakov Avinu. How could such a great man as Yitzchak have believed Esav was virtuous and more fitting to receive the blessings than his righteous brother?

The Be’er Yosef[2] explains that there are two types of righteous people. One is naturally very refined and pure, while the other must work hard to overcome his evil inclination. Yaavetz states that the latter person is greater. According to the Be’er Yosef, Yitzchak believed both his sons were tzaddikim. However, he saw that Yaakov was naturally so, whereas Esav had to conquer his yetzer hara. Yitzchak’s mistake was that he believed Esav had successfully overcome his natural tendencies, but in truth, they had overcome him, setting him on a destructive course.

How could Yitzchak have been blind to Esav’s true character?

Yitzchak recognized, the Be’er Yosef continues, that Esav was born red, indicating a bloodthirsty nature. The Gemara says that if such a person applies this nature in a negative way, he will be a thief, but if he directs it positively, he will be a shochet or a mohel (Shabbos 156a) . Esav became a hunter, which the Be’er Yosef equates with a shochet. Yitzchak viewed this vocation as Esav’s way of channeling his violent tendencies in constructive directions. Moreover, he used his hunting to fulfill the mitzvah of honoring one’s father, by providing Yitzchak with food. Thus, Yitzchak believed Esav had reached a higher level of righteousness than Yaakov.

As mentioned earlier in this book, it is well-known that each of the Avos excelled in a particular trait. Avraham’s specialty was chesed, Yitzchak’s was gevurah,[3] and Yaakov’s was emes (truth).[4] Rav Tzaddok HaKohen[5] explains that both Avraham and Yitzchak bore sons who possessed their fathers’ traits but misused them. Yishmael abused the attribute of chesed, and Esav, that of gevurah. It is instructive to analyze the positive aspect of gevurah embodied by Yitzchak and contrast it with its negative application by Esav.

Yitzchak exercised great internal strength throughout his life. He conquered his negative inclinations and nullified his own selfish wants and needs. The result was tremendous self-discipline, whereby Yitzchak dedicated his entire being solely to fulfilling HaShem’s will. Yitzchak saw in Esav the potential to excel in this trait as well and perhaps even to develop it further. However, Yitzchak did not realize that Esav used his gevurah selfishly. Instead of controlling himself, Esav controlled others, such as the mighty animals he hunted. Moreover, Rashi tells us Esav was a murderer, and Chazal depict him as extremely immoral.

Esav’s descendants, particularly the Romans, likewise misused their power. They sought to conquer the world. Moreover, like Esav, they had no interest in developing their inner strength; rather, they abandoned all self-control in favor of immorality. Western society, the spiritual descendant of Esav, also values power, influence, and wealth rather than self-control. Many people’s goal in life is to attain as much power and pleasure as possible.

We have seen how Yitzchak Avinu excelled in the trait of gevurah and believed his son Esav could also overcome his natural inclinations. However, Esav used his gevurah to further his own desires and dominate others. The Torah clearly emphasizes self-control and de-emphasizes external power. To quote Pirkei 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.’” This form of power, the Mishnah tells us, is what we should aspire to.

Just as the Avos each had their particular strength, so do we all. Nevertheless, whatever one’s natural inclination, he must perfect himself in all areas. Thus, each person must apply the lessons of gevurah to his own life. We see from the contrast between Esav and Yitzchak that one must be very careful to express gevurah correctly. It is far easier to misuse it, to dominate. It is far more difficult, but ultimately far more rewarding, to control oneself. A person who dominates others is a slave to his passions and will never be content. Yet one with self-control is truly free.


Notes and Sources

[1] Bereishis 25:28.

[2] Rav Yosef Salant, Be’er Yosef, p.

[3] Also known as din (strictness) and pachad (fear).

[4] Also known as Torah and tiferes (splendor or harmony).

[5] Pri Tzaddik, Bemidbar, L’Chag HaShavuos.

From the book “Beacons of Light”



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