Why is it that some mornings we awake filled with inspiration? We are grateful for the abundant gifts God has bestowed upon us. We pray with passion, study Torah with excitement, and attempt to help others with delight. We feel fulfilled and serene.
We always hope that inspired feeling will be sustainable and continue within, but often the following morning we awake drained and lazy. We then view life as a continuous burden, filled with never-ending pressures and deadlines. Sometimes we even feel numb toward God and become concerned only with our selfish momentary needs.
Which one is it? Who am I? A mundane beast or a spiritual soul? Why is this constantly happening to me and how am I to deal with my fragmented psyche? We find the answer in this week’s Torah portion of Toldos.
“The children clashed inside her,” is the way the Torah describes our matriarch Rebecca’s pregnancy. The Midrash explains that “whenever Rebecca would pass a house of prayer or study, Jacob would struggle to come out; when she passed a house of idol-worship, Esau would struggle to come out.” Our sages further point out that the children in her womb were fighting over the inheritance of two worlds, the world of materialism and the world of spirituality. Rebecca, in other words, was experiencing in her womb the conflicts that most human beings experience within their hearts on a daily basis.
When the clashes in her womb persisted, the Torah relates, Rebecca asked, “Why is this happening to me?” She went to seek a message from God.
God told Rebecca that “there are two nations in your womb; two people will separate from your innards.” Indeed, when the children matured, the firstborn child, Esau, developed as a “skilled hunter, a man of the field,” while his twin brother, Jacob, grew to be “a wholesome man, a dweller in the tents of study.” Jacob’s descendants become the nation of Israel, who served as the spiritual compass of the world, while Esau fathered the nation of Rome and its culture of self-aggrandizement.
Although the struggle within her womb did not cease, Rebecca went home satisfied. Why? Because she received the gift of clarity. The clarity consisted of the awareness that there was not one, but two nations, in her womb. From two nations one ought to expect conflict and disharmony, and one need not be frustrated or dejected.
The response presented by God to Rebecca remains the eternal response to our own search for identity.
“There are two people in your womb,” the Torah informs each of us. We don’t possess one, but two souls; from the moment we are born till the moment we die, we operate on two levels of consciousness. Now, when you have two distinct people living within the same brain and heart 24/7, it’s hard to expect that your inner workings should be an inviolable whole.
The story of Esau and Jacob is not just a tale of two brothers who fought with each other from the beginning until the end; Esau and Jacob represent two forces in our lives. Their life story is essentially the tale of two souls existing within each Jew. The drama unfolding between Jacob and Esau is a timeless tale continuously occurring in each of our hearts and psyches; their story is essentially a metaphor for our own story.
The first soul, or the Esau soul, is termed the “animal consciousness.” This soul is the motor of our physical life and it focuses on the self. Its every act, thought, word, and desire is motivated by the quest for self-preservation and self-gratification.
The second consciousness, or the Jacob soul, is defined as the “transcendental yen.” This soul gravitates to its divine source, striving to become one with the all-pervading truth of God.
As they both have the same body at their disposal, this makes for the perpetual struggle of life: the struggle between selfishness and selflessness, between idealism and self-centeredness, between our beastly impulses and our spiritual aspirations.
The implications of this kabbalistic doctrine of “two souls” are twofold: there is no need to agitate over the struggle; it is to be expected. And the moments of spiritual numbness do not invalidate the moments of spiritual ecstasy; Esau and Jacob are both very real parts of our lives.
However, the ultimate goal is that the animal soul is elevated and refined through its relationship with the Godly soul.
For the divine soul to spiritualize its animal counterpart, it must disguise itself in the form of an animal soul. Otherwise, the animal soul would not even bother to listen and respond to its subtle, refined melodies.
Thus is the function of genuine education: Whenever you wish to reach out to a child or student whose paradigms of life are of a totally different plateau, you must engage him or her on his or her own terms. If you remain stuck in your own lofty space, you will never manage to make a true impact on another person’s life.
The following story, told by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, illustrates the point.
In a distant land, a prince lost his mind and imagined himself a rooster. He sought refuge under the table and lived there, naked, refusing to partake of the royal delicacies served in golden dishes. All he wanted and accepted was the grain reserved for the roosters. The king was desperate. He sent for the best physicians, monks, ascetics, and miracle-makers; all admitted their incompetence.
One day an unknown sage presented himself at the court, claiming that he might heal the prince. To the surprise of all present, the sage removed his clothing, joined the prince under the table, and began crowing like a rooster. When the prince asked him who he was, the sage responded, “I am a rooster.”
The two “roosters” became best friends.
One day, the sage put on a shirt. The prince could not believe his eyes. “Are you crazy?” he asked. “Are you forgetting who you are?”
“You know,” said the sage, “you mustn’t ever believe that a rooster who dresses like a man ceases to be a rooster.”
The prince had to agree. The next day they both dressed in a normal way. The sage now sent for some dishes from the palace kitchen and when the prince protested, the sage explained, that “you ought never to think that by eating like man, with man, at his table, does a rooster cease to be what he is.”
The prince was convinced. He resumed his life as a prince.
In a similar vein, the divine soul must, to a certain degree, disguise itself as an animal if it is to succeed in restoring the chicken to its princely qualities. The Divine soul existing in a human being must engage in acts like eating, sleeping, making money, shopping, intimacy, and all other materialistic pursuits of life, so that the animal soul will not feel threatened by it and a window of communication can be opened between the two souls. Now the divine soul has the opportunity to slowly begin reaching out to its animal brother and teach it about a higher vision in life.
Sadly, at the time of Esau’s usurped blessing, he was not yet ready for the therapy he needed so desperately in order to reclaim his lost dignity. Instead, he attempted to kill the man who cared for him most: Jacob. That enmity has continued for the following three millennia. When the microcosmic and macrocosmic Esau learns to look to Jacob for direction in life, and Jacob learns to respond to Esau’s yearning for help, we will know that moshiach is at the door.
That time is now.