Here’s a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest “ Good wombs have borne bad sons.” I can’t think of a more apposite quote for this week’s Torah reading. Rivkah produced twins, one good, Yaakov, and the other bad Esav. Both had the same parents, the same upbringing and yet they turned our very differently.
Shakespeare’s day it was an argument between “Nature and Nurture.” In our day we argue as to whether the Genes or the Environment have a greater impact on how our children turn out.
There are lots of experiments that show that identical twins separated at birth still show common traits years later and conversely, we have all come across families in which children turn out very differently, one disciplined and ambitious, the other lazy, indulgent and self-absorbed. And of course, we have also come across families where everyone is self-motivated and others where everyone turns out to be a bum.
Esav is described as a hunter. Yaakov as a stay at home quiet man. Father prefers one, mother prefers the other. But was Esav such a bad guy? Sure, he was a physical, passionate person, given to rash, ill-considered actions. Not the best man to lead a tribe that believed in deferring gratification and taking a longer view. He was a loyal devoted son to his father, desperately wanted his blessing and only threatened to kill Yaakov after he got the blessing through subterfuge. Esav saw his parents did not like his choice of women so he tried to do better the second time round. And he and Yaakov made up in the end and both helped bury their parents. It is hard to say that Esav was completely bad person.
So why do the rabbis go out of their way to blacken him, to emphasize and even exaggerate how evil he was, how deceptive, dangerous and destructive? The Midrash which expresses such views was written at a time of Roman and Christian oppression. Esav was identified with Rome. He was code for Christianity. Enemies of the Jews went out of their way to censor Jewish texts they found offensive. So Jews used code words to defy them. You could not curse a Christian or a Muslim anti-Semite without endangering your life. So you called then Esavs instead.
But the truth is they both show positives and negatives. No one is all good or all bad. How children turn out is another matter. The moral is that you can never tell. Good parents do their best but there are never guarantees. That’s so for life in general. If we do our best we will have more opportunities to succeed but there is no simple answer.