By Rabbi Shmuel Reichman
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.
In Parshat Toldot, Rivka Imeinu (Rebecca) gives birth to Yaakov and Esav (Jacob and Esau). Her pregnancy is extremely difficult, with the two fetuses struggling violently within her. The great Torah commentator Rashi (Bereishis 25:22) cites the famous midrash which describes the battle that transpired between Yaakov and Esav in the womb. Whenever Rivka passed a place of Torah study, Yaakov was drawn towards it, and whenever she passed a house of idol worship, Esav was drawn towards it. Yaakov desired the spiritual and the world to come, while Esav desired the physical and the physical world. This was the cosmic battle that took place within Rivka’s womb.
The problem with this “battle,” however, is obvious. If Yaakov wanted the spiritual, and Esav 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!
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.
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 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 mitzvoth are accomplished through physical actions! This was the very battle between Yaakov and Esav, a battle of perception, a battle of ikar versus tafel.
The truth is that both Yaakov and Esav 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. Esav, in contrast, wanted to use the animation of the soul, but merely as a means to indulge in the physical. Essentially, Esav 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.
Esav did not wish to use the physical to reflect anything higher than his own selfish desires. This is what he tried to do. 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.
Esav 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 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 to choose empowering paradigms, to peer beneath the surface, to experience the infinite within the physical.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman, MA, MS, is CEO of Self-Mastery Academy. He is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Chicago. Visit his website at shsmuelreichmen.com.