July 20, 2024
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Parshas Toldos: Head Over Heels Doesn’t Work

Yaakov was born with his hand grabbing onto the heel of Eisav. Hence, he was called Yaakov. Rashi says Yitzchak named him Yaakov from the word eikev, heel, because he was grabbing onto the heel of Eisav at birth. Interesting…but the Torah does not write trivial facts to catch our attention. The Torah is telling us the name Yaakov describes his true essence, depicted in his grabbing onto the heel of Eisav.

Eisav is depicted by his head, as Chazal tell us he died by being decapitated at the end of Yaakov’s funeral. Indeed, they say Eisav’s head is buried in the Me’aras Hamachpeila (the Tomb of the Patriarchs).

So Yaakov is the “heel” and Eisav is the “head.” This represents a core difference between Eisav and Yaakov. Rav Eliyahu Lopian explains that Eisav, being the son of Yitzchak and the grandson of Avraham, was a giant in his Torah knowledge. He was even successful at tricking his father into thinking he was righteous. Eisav was not just some barbarian we often see depicted in the pictures and dolls our young children bring home from preschool.

Eisav’s elevated stature is evident from the apparent paradox of Eisav screaming in anguish upon hearing about the loss of the blessings. If he didn’t care about the blessings, why would he give out such a cry? It would seem that Eisav understood what was right and wrong and even attempted to live accordingly. However, when he was put to the test by temptation, he could not put his knowledge into practice.

The Mishnah Avos (3:22) says a person whose Torah knowledge is greater than his fear of Hashem is compared to a large tree with many branches and few roots. When a strong wind comes, it can uproot the tree. But someone whose fear of Hashem is greater than his Torah knowledge is compared to a tree with strong roots and few branches. Even the strongest winds will not uproot the tree. Eisav was “top heavy.” He was very knowledgeable, but he did not develop his fear of Hashem. Consequently, while he wanted to do the right thing, he was not able to resist the temptation (a strong wind) to do evil when the opportunity presented itself. Eisav’s roots were not strong enough to withstand the temptation. Despite some remorse, this pattern repeated itself throughout Eisav’s life. Chazal say that the life of the wicked is filled with regret. They might know an action is wrong, but they can’t resist temptation and often feel bad afterward.

This same concept is expressed in Eisav’s name. Eisav means asui—complete—as he was born with a complete head of hair like an older child. Eisav did not feel the need to work on any self-development since he was born physically developed and he felt that his inner self was equally developed.

However, Yaakov represented the eikev, the heel; his feet were firmly planted on the ground. Yaakov had fear of Hashem and he focused on developing accountability for all his actions. For Eisav, faith and positive practice were in his head but did not translate into his actions. Yaakov was the opposite. All his refined principles were dispersed down to his farthest extremities—his heels. His principles and his actions were one.

Upon realizing that Yaakov had fooled their father Yitzchak and received all of the brachos meant for him, Eisav yelled out “vayakveini pa’amaim,” Yaakov tricked me two times. First, it was the sale of the birthright and now it was by stealing the brachos. Eisav uses the word vayakveini, which has the root eikev, heel. The Sforno says Eisav then realized that Yaakov was able to trick Yitzchak because Yaakov’s name comes from the word eikev, and Yaakov’s secret for success was based on his character being firmly grounded.

This concept resonates well in our times, which are labeled as ikvasa d’mishicha—the heels (or footsteps) of Moshiach. We need to focus on making sure we are firmly grounded by developing good midos (character traits) and fearing Hashem. This will ensure that we apply all our knowledge and our values properly, from our head to our toes.

By Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim


Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim is the associate rosh yeshiva of Passaic Torah Institute (PTI)/Yeshiva Ner Boruch. PTI has attracted people from all over northern New Jersey, including Teaneck, Bergenfield, Paramus, Rockaway and Fair Lawn. He initiated and continues to lead a multi-level Gemara learning program. Recently he has spread out beyond PTI to begin a weekly beis midrash program with in-depth chavrusa learning in Livingston and Springfield. This year he joined Heichal Hatorah in Teaneck as a Gemara iyun rebbe. His email is [email protected].

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