Who do you want to be?

Who are Jacob and Esau really?

We often ask children, what do you want to be when you grow up?

I have always found this question a little uncomfortable. We expect them to say something like astronaut, doctor, or even dinosaur. Something cute and adorable. We pat them on the head and send them off to play whatever game they were engaged in before. Don’t get me wrong, you can keep asking this question if you like it, and it is adorable to hear the answers.

This surprisingly complex question is really a number of questions all rolled into one: Who do you want to be?
What do you enjoy now?
How do you want to spend your time?
What makes you curious?

These other questions, I’d argue, are vastly more interesting and valuable to us.

Learning that a child imagines themselves as an astronaut teaches us very little about who they are inside. Maybe it is because they like the stars, or math, or uniforms, or rockets, or fire. You get the idea. In fact, from a brief reading of this study, and I’m certainly no expert, young children barely have the ability to conceptualize and articulate the future meaningfully.

So we might ask ourselves, what are we really asking? What information are we trying to gather from the child? What are we communicating to the child?

What if instead, we asked some version of, who do you want to be? We might get answers like: kind, happy, or friendly. These values might be something we can empower and encourage. Get a sense of who they are as humans.

This exact dynamic is exactly what jumped out to me from this week’s Torah portion, Toldot. We learn a bit about Jacob and Esau’s conception and birth at the beginning of the portion. Shortly thereafter we get a description of who they are:

וַֽיִּגְדְּלוּ֙ הַנְּעָרִ֔ים וַיְהִ֣י עֵשָׂ֗ו אִ֛ישׁ יֹדֵ֥עַ צַ֖יִד אִ֣ישׁ שָׂדֶ֑ה וְיַעֲקֹב֙ אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם יֹשֵׁ֖ב אֹהָלִֽים׃

When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the field/outdoors; and Jacob was an innocent/simple man who stayed in the tents.

You might notice that I added a few additional translations. These words have important connotations and we want to be as exacting as we can be.

Now the Torah doesn’t tell us exactly how old they are, but we get a sense from the commentaries. Chizkuni argues that they might be about fifteen. Rashi suggests that they were about thirteen, which might ring a few bells (read Bat/Bar Mitzvah):

And they grew…and Esau was. So long as they were young they could not be distinguished by what they did and no one paid much attention to their characters, but when they reached the age of thirteen, one went his way to the houses of learning and the other went his way to the idolatrous temples.

The rabbis work pretty hard to make Esau bad and Jacob good, so I think it is important to read really closely.

We learn that Esau is a knowledgeable hunter and someone who understands the outdoors. And yet, the rabbis tear him down constantly. Rashi says that learning how to hunt made him deceptive and manipulative while also being lazy while Jacob was simple and expressed himself honestly. Radak describes him as concentrating on mundane and practical matters as opposed to Jacob’s erudition. In fact, Radak says that he would learn from everyone and just wanted to absorb knowledge.

And yet, none of that is really in the text of the Torah.

Rather, we learn the tiniest bit about their inclinations, at most. In fact, later on, we see how deceptive Jacob is, how manipulative he can be, how little he brings to the table in practical matters.

We might ask, why do the commentators do this to Esau? In this extensive piece by Dr. Malkah Zeiger Simkovich, Esau the Ancestor of Rome, we learn a bit more:

“Although the texts about Jacob and Esau are ostensibly speaking about individuals, each brother represents an ethnic and/or political group that resided in the Levant in biblical times…”

This helps us understand what the commentators are really doing. It is, on some level, not really about Jacob and Esau, but who they represent, who they might become, the story we tell about them.

This teaches us a few lessons:

Who you are and what you do are connected.

For us, our children, and for our biblical ancestors, who we are as human beings and what we strive for are interconnected. Our passions and ambitions are meaningful to us and we hope that they reflect our values. A child that wishes to be an astronaut might be reflecting their value to think big thoughts, or perhaps, they love wearing helmets. Similarly, Esau’s focus on hunting might be a reflection of his desire to bring home something to feed his family and not a desire to entrap everyone.

These things are certainly interconnected, but they don’t define the other. Who we are and what we do are not exactly the same.

We are both Jacob and Esau.

Jacob is described as תם, innocent or simple. In the end, we know that he is not simple nor innocent, but a brilliant and crafty individual. I cannot help but think about how we read this word during Passover. This adjective is one of the four children, the third in the list of four. This is the one who asks, “what is this?” and we gently tell them that God took us out from Egypt. And yet, the commentaries describe Jacob as one who strives to acquire knowledge and wisdom, constantly studying. Of course, simplicity and knowledge are not opposites.

Rather, just like with the four children, we should see ourselves as having Jacob and Esau wrestling between us as well. Practical and abstract, focused skills and a broad range of knowledge, out in the world and in the tents. We are full of opposites and contradictions constantly wrestling with how we see ourselves and how others perceive us.

Who do you want to be?

In the end, Jacob and Esau go their separate ways before years later reconciling. What they did for a living, in the end, doesn’t really describe who they are. Esau is a hunter who ultimately wept while hugging his brother. The rough and coarse older brother is the one who embraces his younger sibling. Jacob is described as an “indoor kid” who ended up manipulating and cheating himself a great fortune as a shepherd. If we asked Jacob and Esau what they wanted to be when they grew up, would that tell us anything about them?

Instead, let us ask ourselves and our children who we want to be and how we want to treat our neighbor, sibling, or friend. Let us focus on how we manifest our values in the world.

Humans are complex.

I’m consistently struck by how we tear down Esau and raise up Jacob despite their complex humanity. We are all guilty, myself included, of doing the same today. We reduce the nuance of one another constantly. We should ask one another about what we believe, how we make those beliefs manifest, and how we create the future we want for ourselves? We should seek to understand and connect with one another on the deepest levels.

Because when I grow up, I want to be a kind, honest, and understanding…dinosaur.

Thank you for reading! In my With Torah and Love newsletter, I write about Torah, Talmud, self-awareness, and becoming our best selves as students of life and Judaism.

About the Author

Rabbi Jeremy Markiz is a teacher and consultant. He teaches the Torah rooted in personal growth, kindness, intentionality, and bettering the world. He writes the With Torah and Love newsletter.

He helps clergy, congregations, and Jewish organizations grow and communicate clearly in the digital world, develop effective strategies, and solve problems with his consulting firm, Next Level Rabbinics.