“And the youths grew up, and Esau was a man who knew how to hunt, he was a man of the field, while Jacob was an Ish Tam, a simple-straightforward man who sat in tents [studying Torah].” (Bereishis 25:27)
An explanation is called for. Why does Scripture call Yaakov Avinu an “Ish Tam” – a simple man, rather than “Ish Chacham” – a wise man, considering that is the most fitting title for a Torah Scholar (a Talmid Chacham) who sits in the tent of Torah?
To our bitter sorrow, we could explain this by saying that we have witnessed the renaissance of widespread horrors, of bloodshed and murder among the nations of the world, both by the Children of Ishmael and the Children of Esau. Due to our abundant sins, we have also seen a certain measure of this attribute among some of our own people. In shock, we ask how it is possible that people can conduct themselves with such cruelty in a civilized, “progressive” world?
We can find the answer by investigating the history of our ancestors, as we find in this week’s Torah Reading, where the differences in the lifestyles of the twins Esau and Jacob was revealed when they reached their Bar Mitzvah age.
Esau chose to conduct himself like every foolish teenager who is filled with wicked desires and lusts; who justifies behavior by saying, “I have questions about faith and religion”; who passes his time violating the Torah and distancing himself further and further from Hashem. This adolescent, too, considers himself wise and “civilized” as he laughs at those who keep the mitzvos. He becomes materialistic and his heart and mind are clouded with the filth of his sins.
We therefore find that when Esau reached the age where he was obligated in Torah and Mitzvos, he immediately took the opportunity to sell his Birthright. And for what? For his appetite for a lentil stew. “He ate, he drank, and he got up” immediately demonstrating his disregard for the mitzvos, as it is explained: “he ate” without washing his hands, “he drank” without reciting a brachah (blessing) “and he got up” without bentching (i.e., without reciting the Grace After Meals). “And Esau despised the Birthright” despite the fact that it brought riches and honor (at that time the first-born sons were the Kohanim of their families, therefore people supplied them with the gifts Matnos Kehunah) and furthermore the firstborn received all kinds of honors given to kohanim.
However, there are six things a Kohen may not do, including becoming impure by contact with a dead body. Esau did not want to be restricted. He not only sold his birthright, but also he scoffed at the sacred office. He belittled Jacob because Esau considered himself wiser with his questioning of faith in Hashem and His Torah. Esau was a Liberal-civilized and “progressive” embracing the philosophy of “rejoice in your youth,” which he misinterpreted as meaning indulge in one’s lusts without restraint.
What happened to Esau in the end? It was not just a complete spiritual deterioration. In the end he also abandoned all of the values of enlightenment and civilization. He completely lost his humanity to the point where he went hunting and murdered innocent people, as it is written “and Esau came in from the field, and he was tired,” which Rashi explains to mean “he was tired from the effort he extended murdering, as it says ‘my soul is tired from murdering’ (Jeremiah 4).” Similarly, Chazal teach that Esau not only murdered that day, but also committed adultery and worshiped idols. This is the path Esau set for himself and for his seed after him.
All of this occurred to him because Esau allowed himself to be drawn after his lusts. He used his talents and gifts to chase after vain pursuits and mindlessly following his urges. It never occurred to him to sit down to learn and know the reasons for the Torah and Mitzvos he saw in his father’s house, rather he allowed his yetzer hara (Evil Urge) to tempt him to see his father as old-fashioned, out-dated, from the past generation. Esau thought he was smarter than anyone, progressive, from the new generation. He did not contemplate nor understand the most fundamental idea, he did not seek out the Ways of the Creator, and the reasons for the commandments, as he imagined that they were worthless, G-d forbid!
The proper way for someone to conduct himself is to realize that he isn’t the smartest person in the world. If a doctor tells someone to change his habits to protect his health, he nullifies his own will before that of the doctor, because the patient is aware that the doctor studied medicine for many years. He doesn’t tell the doctor that he will only listen to him after he knows the reason why the prescription works, as this could take a long time. This is how we must approach the Holy Torah. The first thing is to keep it even if you don’t know the reason why, as all the previous generations have done for over three thousand years, where they often allowed themselves to be killed as martyrs rather that violating the Torah. They did not do so because they were foolish or imbecilic, but rather just the opposite, it was because of their knowledge and wisdom. They understood clearly that their whole life was dependent upon the Torah, and in fact the whole preservation of truly civilized humanity was only from Torah, as it is written “for this is your life”. It is also written “from this thing you will have long life”. After learning this, one can be totally joyous in keeping the mitzvos.
This is how Yaakov Avinu conducted himself. He annulled his own will before his father and grandfather, as he saw the greatness of their wisdom and importance. After this he grew in his spirituality and also in material gains. He was worthy to wealth and honor every place he went, as it is written “and Jacob came complete to the city of Shechem”, meaning he was complete in his Torah, his wealth, and his bodily health. He was worthy to recognize that there was no true goodness other than Torah, for “the Torah of Your Mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver”.
This fundamental attitude was received by Jacob from his father Isaac, who did not abandon the lifestyle of his father Abraham as his brother Ishmael did, but rather he continued to follow the path of faith he understood was worthy to learn from Avraham Avinu. This is what is written “and these are the offspring of Isaac son of Abraham, Abraham begot Isaac”, that this was the way that Isaac was worthy to be a true son of Abraham, by following in his ways, because he did not abandon the traditions he received from his father. He only remembered to constantly think about the works that Abraham did in order to be worthy to have Isaac as his son. He learned from Abraham to follow his intellect and not his lusts, to learn and know the reasons why Abraham conducted himself as he did. This is what his son Jacob did after him.
This is why Scripture gives Jacob the title of “Ish Tam” – a “simple man”, as this was the foundation of his success. When he reached his Bar Mitzvah age, he understood the natural limitations of a young adolescent who has not yet learned enough. He remembered his own simplicity and ignorance of the world, humbly accepting that he did not know or recognize the depth of the Torah and the mitzvos. This is why he is called “one who sits in tents” of Torah, for when he grew to learn the reasons for the mitzvos, he grew to have more joy in fulfilling them, as it is written “the commandments of Hashem are upright and bring joy to the heart”, “upright” in doing them and “bring joy to the heart” in fulfilling them”.
This fundamental concept is very important for every adolescent in modern times, because Esau’s error is unfortunately rooted among many Israelis and Secular Jews around the world in their spiritual life, because they don’t want to curb their animal desires in the proper way, in accordance with the laws of the Torah and the Will of the Creator. This is why they say that in their minds they deny Hashem and His Torah, even though in the depths of their souls they know and see that the only Truth is in the Torah Path. They even are jealous of the Ultra-Orthodox Jews (and this is the cause of the anti-religious incitement we have seen from secular Jews recently.)
If a person was not plagued with the leprosy of evil character traits and imaginary lusts, it would be easy to believe very strongly, because there is evidence of the Truth of Hashem and His Torah at every turn, and faith requires us all to turn our lives around, and to think about the proper way to live. However bad habits and wicked character traits twist and pervert the mind. This is why we need to be strong and follow the good path of our Patriarch Jacob to be a “simple person sitting in tents”.
Through this, may G-d grant us abundant blessings from Heaven, and we will no longer hear of any grief or damage in our midst. May we be worthy to see that which the Baal HaTurim writes in his commentary to Genesis 25:18, “in front of all of his brothers, Ishmael fell”, which is attached to “these are the offspring of Isaac”, which means when Ishmael falls in the End Days, then will the Son of David sprout, who will be from the offspring of Isaac, soon and in our days, Amen – so may it be!