Esau is surely one of the most tragic figures of the Bible.

He is a simple man, whose robust nature leads him to rejoice in his own health, strength and energy.  Esau loves to hunt. He celebrates the outdoors! Esau is a man of impulse.  Like Rambo or John Wayne, Esau thrives on his tremendous power, his physical courage and his own inner drives.

We distrust the intellectual, someone who thinks too much…We prefer a man who can impose his own will through a show of determination and strength, someone who does not plan in advance, someone who can relish the moment and trust his own passions.

Modern America admires that. Therefore, our feelings are not — and should not be — subject to control.

The Torah asserts, to the contrary, that every aspect of being human — heart, mind and soul — needs constant training, direction and restraint.

The story of Esau and Jacob is the story of these two conflicting approaches to being human. Esau comes home after a day of hunting and he wants to eat.  Meanwhile, Jacob has prepared a pot of lentil stew.  Here, the man of action meets the man of forethought.  Acting on impulse, Esau demands to be fed.

Responding with calculation, Jacob agrees to sell his stew in exchange for Esau’s birthright. Living in the present, Esau sees no benefit in his birthright.  After all, it doesn’t satisfy his hunger, so his parting with his birthright represents no real loss.

Jacob, on the other hand, lives with one foot in the future.  Less powerful than his burly brother, Jacob compensates by using his mind and by weighing the consequences.  He prefers to skip a meal if that means he will acquire the birthright of the covenant.

What makes this Torah’s story so powerful is that we can easily understand Esau’s motivation.  As Americans, we are taught from earliest childhood to admire unrestrained expressions of feelings, to treat our emotions as somehow beyond our own control, as somehow sacred. Ultimately, what makes us human is precisely that willingness and ability to control and channel our deepest drives.

The Mishna asks, “Who is powerful?”  It answers, “One who conquers his own impulse.” Jacob’s ability to control his own drives, to manipulate the present in order to thrive in the future, his ability to restrain himself now in order to benefit later, is profoundly out of touch with mainstream American values. Moreover, it is precisely this trait that lifts a person above the moment and makes the future possible. A fitting trait for the Eternal People.

The Talmud teaches us that true strength and power is not found in our ability to control others, but rather in the ability to control ourselves. Rashi explains that anytime we are tempted to do something immoral or wrong yet restrain ourselves, we achieve the highest level of intimacy with the Divine.

He explains that part of our many failings stem from our insistence on forming rationalizations and justifications with which we allow ourselves to indulge in whatever we want to do. In this week’s Torah portion, Isaac is faced with an incredible dilemma. For over 60 years, he has been pinning his hopes and dreams on his eldest son, Esau, to carry on his legacy. Yet when faced with the reality that his judgment was wrong, he avoids all rationalizations and excuses and says, “Jacob will be blessed”

That is why in Jewish mysticism Isaac is the only one of the three Patriarchs to be described as “strong.” He had the ability to face the truth and avoid all attempts at justifying himself. He had real strength: the strength of character to do what was right, not just what was pragmatic and comfortable. Anytime we conquer our inner drive and exert self-control, we attain a taste of the Divine, right here and now.

I wish each of you a safe and spiritual Shabbat Shalom!