This week’s portion starts off with an extremely difficult story to comprehend. The Torah relates that Rivka became pregnant. But this was not a normal pregnancy. “The children agitated within her, and she said, ‘if so, why is this happening?’ and she went to ask of Hashem” (Bereshis 25:22).
Rivka was disturbed by the fact that when she passed by a house of idolatry, she would feel kicking, and when she passed by the house of Torah study led by Shem and Ever, she would also feel kicking. She went to Shem, who was also a prophet, to find out what was happening. “And Hashem said to her (through Shem): two nations are in your womb, and two kingdoms from your insides shall descend. One kingdom shall gain strength from another, and the older will serve the younger” (Ibid. 25:23). These two children were Yaakov and Esav.
A superficial reading of the above mentioned verses would imply that man has no free will, that everything is predestined. But we know this to conflict with one of the most basic foundations of the Torah, that man is given free will. How are we to understand these verses?
The Maharal gives an interesting answer: in any case, children in a womb have no inclination, good or evil. So why was Esav kicking when he passed a house of idolatry, and why was Yaakov kicking when he passed a house of Torah study? The Maharal further explains that Esav and Yaakov were merely following their nature.
In order to understand this, we must first understand the ideal role of the brothers. Yaakov and Esav were meant to work together. Yaakov would be the spiritual leader, while Esav would be the administrator, taking care of physical needs. A perfect example of this was Rebbi (Rabbi Yehuda the Prince, compiler of the Mishna and leader of the Jewish people 200 C.E) and Antoninus, the Roman emperor in the time of Rebbi. The Talmud (Brochos 16b) relates that Antoninus would actually use his men in order to help Rebbi enforce Jewish law. Unfortunately, history has not provided us with many other examples. In fact, the descendants of Esav and Yaakov have essentially been at war since the time of Esav and Yaakov, sometimes a physical war, almost always a cultural war.
The Rambam explains (Hilchos Dayos 1:1) that each person is made up of different character traits, with different attributes and faults, and different challenges that would confront him.
Esav did not have a disposition towards idolatry. He did have a disposition towards the physical world. If used this disposition properly, he would have ensured the study and performance of Torah in the world. Idolatry is the belief in physicality taken to an extreme. His kicking when he passed by a house of idolatry was merely his natural predisposition towards materialism. How he would manifest this predisposition was purely up to him.
Similarly, Yaakov was not born a righteous man. On the contrary, he worked very hard to become who he was. He was predisposed to being a spiritual leader; thus he kicked when passing by the most spiritual place, a house of Torah study. Unlike Esav, Yaakov lived up to his potential.
Rivka was worried because she did not know she was expecting twins and she was distressed that the same child should seem to have two diametrically opposed traits. When Shem told her (as he heard from Hashem) that the older would serve the younger, it was said in the hope that this would happen through the two brothers working together. This was not to be.
We learn from this story that we all have different strengths and weaknesses, and we must know ourselves, and learn how to play to the strengths, and overcome the weaknesses.