By Rabbi Shmuel Reichman
Things are not always as they seem. Everyone has a story, much deeper than a surface glance reveals. Similarly, every object and occurrence in the physical world is laced with layers of deep meaning. We must choose to peer beyond the surface in order to discover these layers.
In Toldot, Rivka (Rebecca) gives birth to Jacob and Esau. Her pregnancy is extremely difficult, with the two fetuses struggling violently within her. The commentator Rashi (Bereishis 25:22) cites the famous midrash which describes the battle that transpired between Jacob and Esau in the womb. Whenever Rivka passed a place of Torah study, Jacob was drawn towards it, and whenever she passed a house of idol worship, Esau was drawn towards it. Jacob desired the spiritual and Olam Habah (the world to come), while Esau desired the physical and Olam Hazeh (the physical world). This was the cosmic battle that took place within Rivka’s womb.
The problem with this “battle” is quite obvious. If Jacob wanted the spiritual and Esau desired the physical where is the point of contention? They can simply each take what they desire, without any need for argument or disagreement. There’s nothing to fight over. What, then, was the fight between Jacob and Esau 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 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 which carries the soul though the world.
The goal is a beautiful but 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 Jacob and Esau, a battle of perception, a battle of ikar versus tafel.
Jacob vs Esau
The truth is that both Jacob and Esau wanted both the spiritual and the physical. This was the root of their battle. Jacob wanted to use the physical as a vehicle for the spiritual, as a tool to fully utilize and actualize spiritual potential. Esau, in contrast, wanted to use the animation of the soul, but merely as a means to indulge in the the physical. Essentially, Esau flipped the ikar and tafel. corrupting their ideal relationship; he viewed the physical as ikar (primary) and the spiritual as tafel (secondary), a necessary medium for experiencing the physical world.
Esau did not wish to use the physical to reflect anything higher than his own selfish desires. He tried 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.
A Life of Ikar
Esau distorted the ideal relationship between ikar and tafel, valuing only the physical, limited surface, and cutting it off from any higher reality. Jacob teaches us the true purpose of the tafel, using it as a means towards 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 choose empowering paradigms, to peer beneath the surface, to experience the infinite within the physical.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is an author, educator, and coach who has lectured internationally on topics of Jewish thought and Jewish medical ethics. Contact him at ShmuelReichman.com.