Parshat Toldot: Esau and Jacob – Masters of Many Worlds

And the youths grew up, and Esau became a man who knows hunting, a man of the field and Jacob [became] an earnest man, dwelling in tents.

The word “man” (אִישׁ ) appears three times in this verse:

  • a man who knows hunting, אִישׁ יוֹדֵע צַיִד
  • a man of the field, אִישׁ שָׂדֶה
  • an earnest man, אִישׁ תָּׂם

In Hebrew, when the word “man” appears before a noun it indicates a relationship of mastery over that noun.1 A phrase such as “man of the field,” means “master of the field.”2 Thus, Esau was the master of hunting and of the field and Jacob was the master of earnestness.

As the cause for Jacob and Esau’s restlessness in the womb, Rashi quotes the Midrash that they were quarrelling as it were over who would inherit which of the two worlds, this world and the World to Come. Following the Midrash,3 we can say that once they exited the womb and grew up, they exhibited mastery over the three lower worlds, the Worlds of Action, of Formation, and of Creation. Esau’s mastery was over the World of Action, where as its name implies, action speaks louder than words and over the World of Formation, whose name in Hebrew, yetzirah, links it with the psychological arena where the good and evil inclination, the emissaries of the Divine and animal soul respectively are constantly interlocked in battle. Jacob exhibited mastery over the world of Creation, which is described by the sages as the throne of honor upon which the fourth world, the World of Emanation, rests. Let us explore this correspondence.

We begin by seeing things from a perspective that everything is holy.4 As is revealed in the Kabbalistic and Chassidic teachings on parshat Vayishlach, Jacob needs to meet Esau in order to redeem the world. In other words, Esau’s root in holiness is very high and his rectification is needed in order to bring the redemption.

Master of Chaos

Esau’s mastery of the World of Action was exhibited through his prowess in hunting. As a metaphor, hunting perfectly describes the process of clarification (עַבוֹדָת הַבֵּרוּרִים ) by which the sparks of holiness—the aftermath of the shattering of the vessels in the World of Chaos—are redeemed from our reality and elevated back into their holy source in the World of Chaos from where new lights are drawn. These lights, which can be understood as thoughts and ideas, are called lights of chaos. When contained within vessels of holiness, which are formed by our study of the Torah and performing its commandments, these lights become the driving force of the redemption by the Mashiach.

Esau’s name itself עֵשָׂו stems from the Hebrew word for “action,” עַשִׂיָה . The numerical value of “who knows hunting” (יֹדֵעַ צַיִד ) is 188, which is half5 of 376, the gematria of Esau’s name (עֵשָׂו ); this is a 1:2 ratio, also called by Rabbi Avraham Abulafia “the secret of a whole and a half.” This also indicates that only half of Esau’s mastery focused on the World of Action and the other half as we shall see shortly was focused on the World of Formation.

By itself, the word “hunting” (צַיִד ) is equal to 104, which is half of 208, the gematria of Isaac’s name, (יִצְחָק ). Indeed, the Torah states that Isaac loved Esau because of the game (which in Hebrew is the same word as “hunting”) that was always in his mouth. The Arizal explains that game is a metaphor for the sparks of holiness that Esau would gather and bring to his father so that he could elevate them to their holy source in the World of Chaos. In fact,Onkelos translates the word “chaos” as צַדְיַא ,6 which in Hebrew is the same as צַיִד , or game.

Master of Nature

The master of the field is a metaphor for the master of the world of Formation. In Kabbalah it is explained that the four worlds (from top to bottom) correspond to a house, a courtyard, a field, and a desert. These are obviously to be understood conceptually. And so, as the master of the conceptual field, Esau is revealed as the father of modern science, which uses the concept of a field to study nature, which is the literal intimation of being “the master of the field,” i.e., “the master of nature.”7 The discovery of the mathematical concept of a field and its application to all four of the known forces of nature—gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces—is one of the most important driving forces of modern science.

At first reading, we might think that the Torah’s description of Esau as “a man who knows hunting, a man of the field” means that Esau hunted in the field. But, according to our analysis Esau hunted in the World of Action, which is likened to a desert not to a field. That he was a master of the field reveals that he was a master artist, for the artist seeks to merge form (the World of Formation) with matter.8 Indeed, the struggle of the artist to produce his artwork is a psychological battle more than anything else. It is a battle of the human with nature. Even when art mimics nature, it aspires to elevate nature by revealing how it expresses that which is above nature (i.e., God) just as the Divine soul aspires to elevate the animal soul by revealing its inherent ability to serve God.

In Chassidut, the three lower worlds of Action, Formation, and Creation are compared to the three garments of the soul, action, speech, and thought. This correspondence leads us to a beautiful explanation of how Jacob and Esau, when at peace, work together. We mentioned above that Esau’s mastery of hunting in the World of Action only makes up half of his prowess. The second half is revealed in his mastery of the field/nature and the World of Formation. Thus, Esau’s strength is in his actions and in his speech. Indeed the description “there is game in his mouth,” reveals this inherent connection between his ability to hunt game and his ability to speak.

There is a beautiful analogy here to the statement of the sages that a Jewish thief, even when going to steal, calls out to God to help him not get caught. The Jewish thief thus combines actions with words of prayer. This is a fitting description for Esau. The act of stealing is similar to hunting. Whenever Esau would hunt/steal [the holy sparks] thus releasing them from their bondage, he would pray that the Almighty be at his side and save him from getting himself caught in the same defilement in which the holy sparks are themselves held hostage. Esau’s prayers are alluded to in a verse that the Ba’al Shem Tov especially loved: “Who is this, rising from the desert?”9 (מִי זֹאת עוֹלָה מִן הַמִדְבַּר ). Starting at the end of the verse, the “desert” symbolizes the World of Action, where Esau would hunt. The first two words, “who” (מִי ) and “this” (זֹאת ) correspond to the two sefirot of understanding and kingdom, which correspond to the words of prayer (kingdom) and the intentions or spiritual meaning behind the words (understanding). Thus, Esau’s actions and prayers in the desert are supplemented in the background by the spiritual intentions and meaning provided by Jacob who is the master of the world of Creation, the world of the sefirah of understanding.

To offer a more concrete image, we can take last week’s parshahChayei Sarah, where Eliezer set out on Abraham’s behalf to find Rivkah. Loaded with camels, the ships of the desert, when Eliezer reached his destination he called out in prayer to God to help him succeed and free Rivkah from her current bondage among the impurities of her surroundings in Haran. Where was Abraham in all this? As we explained in our teachings on parshat Lech Lecha, Abraham provided the thoughts, the intent and the meaning for Eliezer’s prayers. Eliezer served as Abraham’s expression in the Worlds of Action and Formation, while Abraham himself, whose mind and faith held fast in pure holiness, stood in the World of Creation.

Of course, this is not just a statement about the past. The Torah is instructing us on the potential for a constructive relationship with Esau who represents the non-Jewish world. Jews and non-Jews can work together in this manner. Indeed, based on the verse:

…In the future days, there will be ten people from each of the nations of the world that will hold on to the corner of the garment of one Jewish person and they will say: “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”10

The sages figure that each Jew will be providing the insight, meaning, and intent, for the prayers and actions of 2800 non-Jews.11

We can draw a similar relationship when Esau represents the modern scientist. The work and publications of many (2800) Esau’s—many scientists—will be uplifted and given Divine meaning by the thought of one Jacob. Here Esau does not necessarily represent a non-Jewish scientist, but rather a scientist who is an expert in fields, not in Torah. There are many such Jewish scientists today, and the best of example of such a person is Einstein. Though Einstein was Jewish and is perhaps the most famous of all scientists, nonetheless he had no expertise in Torah. It follows therefore that Jacob here represents the Torah scholar who is able to elevate science by reconnecting it to its Divine source.

Master of Earnestness

In Hebrew, the letters that spell the words “a man of earnestness,” אִישׁ תָּם , also spell the words: “there is truth,” יֵשׁ אֶמֶת . The relationship of Jacob with truth is expounded in the verse: “You shall give truth to Jacob.” What does truth in this sense mean? As Rashi notes on these words, Jacob did not know how to deceive. One who cannot deceive, who has not a duplicitous bone in his body, is called earnest in Hebrew.12 An earnest individual is a serious individual. He has no contrivances or machinations, which are needed to deceive the impurity within which the sparks of holiness are being held prisoner. Instead his mind is fully immersed in the study of the holy Torah with no ulterior motive all in order to know how to safeguard the Torah’s teaching and to perform the mitzvot perfectly, within physical reality. Jacob did all of this in the yeshivah’s of his two teachers, Shem and Ever. Relating to this verse, theMaharal teaches that just as a person should always focus on the Torah that his heart desires, so should he attach himself to the teacher that his heart desires, even if that teacher is of lesser stature in the study of Torah than he is.13

The World of Creation, where Jacob is master, is described as mostly good (only the World of Emanation is considered entirely good, as there, there is no feeling of separateness from God). When one’s consciousness is in the World of Creation, one seeks only to do good14and the purest form of good that has no ulterior motives for the self mixed into it is the study of Torah from a practical point of view, study that leads to actions. It is only when one’s consciousness descends into the Worlds of Formation and Action which are described as half good (Formation) and even mostly evil (Action) where one needs to employ Esau’s powers of deception in order to succeed in conquering evil.

Tents without a master

It is surprising that Esau mastered more worlds than Jacob. There is a certain lopsidedness here. But, if we look at the end of the verse, we will find that Jacob is also described as “dwelling in tents.” However, the Torah does not use the word “man” before this description, so the notion of the master of dwelling in tents is still lacking. Does Esau really control more than Jacob?

To answer this question, let us look carefully at the phrase “dwelling in tents.” The gematriaof the word “dwells” (literally, “sits”) is 312, which is also the sum of all 12 possible permutations of God’s essential Name, Havayah, whose numerical value is 26: 312 = 12 · י־הוה .  312 is also the numerical value of the idiom “the eye of Jacob”15 עֵין יַעֲקֹב . The word “tents” אָהַלִים permutes to spell God’s Name Elokim אֶ־לֹהִים . Thus, together these two words refer to the World of Emanation, the world above Creation and the highest of the four worlds. In the World of Emanation, there is no sense of self and therefore also no sense of ownership or mastery, so the word “man,” implying ownership would not be appropriate in this context. Nonetheless, it is Jacob who is immersed in the consciousness of the World of Emanation.

At this level of consciousness, the study of Torah is itself transformed into a recreational activity, just as the Almighty enjoyed the Torah as a source of recreation before the world was created and the Torah became a practical guide for the commandments.

Adding the Hebrew word for “emanation” אַצִילוּת to “dwelling in tents” יֹשֵׁב אָהַלִים , we get: 537 ┴ 398 = 935, which is the product of “everything” הַכָּל (55) and “good” טוֹב (17), which is the motto of the World of Emanation: everything is good! Just adding “everything” and “good” together, we get 72, which is the numerical value of filling of Havayah that corresponds with the World of Emanation.16 72 is also the gematria of the world “loving-kindness” חֶסֶד ; about the World of Emanation the verse says: “The world will be built with loving-kindness.”17

(Based on the Daily Dvar Torah from Monday, 26th Cheshvan, 5768 – November 7, 2007)


1. See Rashi to Genesis 27:11, Exodus 15:3, and elsewhere. See also Mizrachi to Genesis 9:20.

2. In the three instances of איש in our verse, only the middle instance follows the formula of “man of [noun],” which means “master of [noun].” The first and third instances are followed by an adjective. Nonetheless, in English as in Hebrew, an adjective can be used as a noun. Though this is not the pshat interpretation, it is a drash interpretation of this verse.

3. See also Likutei Sichot v. 20, p. 113.

4. It is well known that the entire Torah is comprised of the holy Names of the Almighty. It is only our current limited reading that divides characters and events along the lines of good and evil. In Chassidut the verse “And from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil you shall not eat” was rendered “And from the Tree of Knowledge of Good. And evil, you shall not eat!”

5. The word “half” in Hebrew is written חצי , and is etymologically stems from the same two-letter root as the word “arrow,” חץ , thus alluding to the arrows used by Esau to hunt the sparks of holiness.

6Onkelos to the words “the earth was chaotic…” (Genesis 1:2).

7. Mastering nature begins with mastering one’s own nature—one’s own psychological nature. This is why the World of Formation is likened to the battlefield where the Divine soul struggles to conquer the animal (or natural) soul, thereby being declared the master of the field. Once the animal soul is indeed subdued and put under control it serves the Divine soul and the individual has acquired a second nature that is holy.

8. In Hebrew, the idiom used to designate a “work of art” is “a formation of art” יצירת אמנות .

9. Song of Songs 8:5.

10. Zachariah 8:23.

11. The computation is as follows: 10 people from each of the 70 nations of the world gives 700 people on one corner of the Jew’s garment, apparently a talit, the four-cornered garment. Thus, altogether, there will be 4 · 700 = 2800 non-Jews attached to every Jew. There are two types of talit, one small and usually worn all day (and night) under one’s clothing and one large and usually worn only during the morning prayers over one’s clothing. The large talit corresponds in Kabbalah to the mother principle, and thus fits best with the verse: “Who is this rising from the desert,” where we saw that Jacob’s thought (the World of Creation, the sefirah of understanding, and the mother principle) is particularly the thought invested in the intent and meaning of the prayers offered by Esau, representing the non-Jew.

12. In the sefirot, earnestness is the inner experience of acknowledgment (hod). In the human body, acknowledgment corresponds to the immune system, the system which fights deception by foreign organisms that enter the body. See Body, Mind, and Soul for more.

13. Of course when asking a halachic question, one should always seek the greatest authority on that topic that one can find.

14. See the first article in our Hebrew volume Lev Lada’at for more on this frame of mind.

15. Deuteronomy 33:28.

16. See What You Need to Know About Kabbalah, pp. 141-3.

17. Psalms 89:3.

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