Photo Credit: Jewish Press

A young man was sitting at the airport gate, waiting for his flight home. After realizing that his flight was delayed, he bought a book and a small bag of chocolate chip cookies to enjoy while he waited. As he sat reading, he noticed an older man sitting next to him reading a book as well. He was about to turn back to his book when he noticed the older man reach into the bag of cookies that lay between their seats and take a cookie. Shocked, he pointedly took a cookie from the bag and began eating it. “The nerve,” he thought, “he didn’t even ask.” The older man just looked at him and smiled, taking another cookie and eating it as he continued reading. The young man said nothing, but inside he could feel himself starting to get angry. For each cookie he took, the older man took one too. This continued until there was only one cookie left. He sat there fuming, debating whether or not to say anything, when the older man did the unthinkable. He picked up the cookie, split it in half, and handed him a piece. Well, that was it! He was so infuriated by the older man’s lack of consideration that he packed up his things and moved. His flight was called soon after, so he gladly boarded and began settling in for the flight. As he opened his bag to take out his book, he felt his heart sink. There, at the bottom of his bag, was his bag of cookies.

Things are not always as they seem. Each and every person in this world has a story, one much deeper than a surface glance reveals. Similarly, every object and occurrence in the physical world is laced with layers of depth and meaning. We must choose to peer beyond the surface in order to discover these layers.



Yaakov vs. Eisav

The Torah tells us that Rivka Imeinu’s pregnancy with Yaakov and Eisav was extremely difficult, as the two fetuses struggled violently within her (Bereishis 25:22). Rashi cites the famous Midrash that describes the battle that transpired between Yaakov and Eisav in the womb. Whenever Rivka passed a place of Torah study, Yaakov was drawn toward it, and whenever she passed a house of idol worship, Eisav was drawn toward it. Yaakov desired the spiritual and Olam Haba, while Eisav desired the physical and Olam Hazeh (lit. this world, i.e., the physical world). This was the cosmic battle that took place within Rivka’s womb.


The Obvious Problem

The problem with this “battle,” however, is quite obvious. If Yaakov wanted the spiritual, and Eisav desired the physical, where is the point of contention? This is not a battle; they can simply each take what they desire, without any need for argument or disagreement. There’s nothing to fight over.

For example, if there are two cups of ice cream, chocolate and vanilla, and one sibling wants chocolate, while the other craves vanilla, then surely there is no argument! They are actually in agreement; each can simply take what they desire. An argument would arise only if there was one cup of ice cream and they both wanted it. What, then, was the fight between Yaakov and Eisav about?


Ikar and Tafel

In order to understand the depth of this battle, we must understand the concepts of ikar (primary) and tafel (secondary). “Ikar” is the inner essence and the main entity; the tafel is what enables the ikar to flourish. For example, the ikar of an orange is the inner fruit, while the peel is the tafel, as it protects and enables the fruit. The same principle applies to a person; the ikar of a person is the neshama, the self, the mind and soul. The body is the tafel, as it enables the soul to exist in this world, to learn, grow, and expand. This is the ideal relationship between the spiritual and physical world: the spiritual is the ikar, and the physical is the tafel. The physical world is meant to enable – to reflect and express – the spiritual.

The ideal is for the tafel (that which is secondary and lower) to perfectly and loyally reflect the ikar (the inner spiritual essence) – for the body to faithfully reflect the truth and depth of the soul, for the physical to be a loyal vessel, fully reflecting its spiritual root. The body is meant to be the vehicle that carries the soul though the world.

We don’t believe in rejecting the physical, but we don’t wish to get stuck in the physical either. The goal is a beautiful, nuanced balance where the physical is used to reflect something higher – the spiritual. In this perfect balance, the wisdom and ideas of Torah become one with you, and you express that inner, spiritual depth through the physical. This is why almost all the mitzvos are accomplished through physical actions. And this was the very battle between Yaakov and Eisav, a battle of perception, a battle of ikar versus tafel.


A Battle of Focus

The truth is that both Yaakov and Eisav wanted both the spiritual and the physical, and this was the root of their battle. Yaakov wanted to use the physical as a vehicle for the spiritual, as a tool to fully utilize and actualize spiritual potential. Eisav, in contrast, wanted to use the animation of the soul, but merely as a means to indulge in the physical. Essentially, Eisav flipped the ikar and tafel, corrupting their ideal relationship; he viewed the physical as ikar and the spiritual as tafel, a necessary medium for experiencing the physical world.

Eisav did not wish to use the physical to reflect anything higher than his own selfish desires. This can be compared to a computer screen that blocks the image you want to see and projects itself in its place. A computer screen is the means by which we interact with a computer’s inner content. A computer that projects only its own screen is useless – it rejects its true purpose. Similarly, imagine a projector that didn’t project the film but projected itself instead. This is what Eisav tried to do – to focus on himself and his own ego instead of reflecting something higher. Just as he refused to reflect anything higher, he did not wish for the physical world to reflect any higher truth.


Eisav’s Twisted Philosophy

This insight into Eisav’s character and values sheds light on many episodes in his life. The Torah describes Yaakov’s and Eisav’s development and their respective personalities. Yaakov was a pure, spiritual individual, who “dwelt in the tents” (of Torah), whereas Eisav was a man of the field, a hunter (Bereishis 25:27). Rashi quotes the Midrash that expounds on this verse, explaining that Eisav was not only a literal hunter and trapper, but also a figurative one: he ensnared Yitzchak’s mind by convincing him of his alleged spiritual greatness. How did he accomplish this? Eisav asked Yitzchak how to take maaser (tithes) from salt and straw, convincing his father that he was scrupulous in his mitzvah observance.

While Yitzchak was impressed with Eisav’s apparent halachic stringency, Eisav was actually portraying his twisted ideology. Straw and salt have an important characteristic in common: they are both tafel. Straw is the protective casing of wheat; independently, it is worthless. The same is true of salt. Anyone who cooks know that salt itself is not meant to be tasted; it is meant only to draw out the flavor of the food. Salt is the tafel, the enabler of taste.

Eisav specifically asked how to tithe straw and salt, both of which are tafel. This was a reflection of his corrupted worldview. He essentially claimed that the tafel, e.g., salt and straw, deserves attention as the ikar – the main focus. This was his view toward the physical and spiritual as a whole: Eisav sought to turn the tafel – the physical – into the ikar. He placed the physical world as the center and main focus of life, with the spiritual simply enabling its pursuit (see Commentary of Vilna Gaon to Aggados of Savei d’bei Atuna, Bechoros, Daf 8). While Yaakov saw the physical body as his instrument to carry his soul through this world and enable him to live a spiritual life, Eisav saw the soul as merely a way to animate his physical body and allow him to enjoy this physical world.

This is perhaps why in Sefer Ovadiah, Eisav is compared to a nation of straw (Ovadiah 1:18). Eisav and his nation, Edom, are immersed in the world of tafel and physicality. Chazal compare Eisav to a pig: a pig gives off an external impression of being kosher, due to its split hooves; but in truth, on the inside, it’s completely treif (as it doesn’t chew its cud) (see Bereishis Rabbah 65:1 and Vayikra Rabbah 13:5. See also Rashi, Bereishis 26:34). So too, Eisav portrayed himself as a tzaddik on the outside, but on the inside, he was twisted and corrupt.


Selling the Bechora

Based on these ideas, we can conclude by explaining why Eisav sold the bechora (firstborn rights) immediately after his grandfather, Avraham Avinu, passed away. The pasuk states that Eisav despised the bechora, proclaiming that he would eventually die anyway and therefore had no need for it (Bereishis 25:32). What is the meaning behind Eisav’s animosity toward the bechora, and why does he sell it specifically after Avraham passes away?

The answer to these questions is profound. The bechora is a spiritual inheritance. It grants the privilege and obligation to serve in the Beis HaMikdash, to live with a higher purpose, to be rooted in a higher world – all of which meant nothing to Eisav. Eisav lived a completely physical, finite existence. In his mind, there was no life after death, nothing beyond this fleeting, limited life.

Furthermore, the bechora is a spiritual inheritance that he would pass on to his future generations. In Eisav’s eyes, though, his death meant the end of his existence, as he didn’t believe in an eternal spiritual afterlife. He did not care about what his children would receive, about any future occurrence. The only currency Eisav was interested in was sensory experience. With no deeper roots, Eisav’s entire existence was invested in this physical world.

When Eisav experienced Avraham’s death, he was reminded of his own fate according to his own philosophy. At that moment, the worthlessness of the bechora was brought into sharp relief. He valued only that which he could experience in the physical world, which is why he exchanged the bechora for a bowl of food – eternal spiritual significance for fleeting bodily pleasure.


A Life of Ikar

Eisav distorted the ideal relationship between ikar and tafel, valuing only the physical, limited surface and cutting it off from any higher reality. Yaakov teaches us the true purpose of the tafel, using it as a means toward perceiving and experiencing the ikar. He bequeathed the legacy and responsibility of building deeper and more empowering perceptions of the physical world. The physical is not an end in itself; it is meant to serve as a vehicle for transcendent, spiritual, conscious living. This is the battle we face on a daily basis – a battle of perception. Let us be inspired to choose empowering paradigms, to peer beneath the surface, to experience the infinite within the physical.


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Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, “The Journey to Your Ultimate Self,” which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an educator and speaker who has lectured internationally on topics of Torah thought, Jewish medical ethics, psychology, and leadership. He is also the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy, the transformative online self-development course based on the principles of high-performance psychology and Torah. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received Semicha from Yeshiva University’s RIETS, a master’s degree in education from Azrieli Graduate School, and a master’s degree in Jewish Thought from Bernard Revel Graduate School. He then spent a year studying at Harvard as an Ivy Plus Scholar. He currently lives in Chicago with his wife and son where he is pursuing a PhD at the University of Chicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: