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. He 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

In Parshas Toldos, Rivkah Imeinu gives birth to Yaakov and Eisav. Her pregnancy is extremely difficult, with the two fetuses struggling violently within her. Rashi (B’reishis 25:22) cites the famous midrash that describes the battle that transpired between Yaakov and Eisav in the womb. Whenever Rivkah passed a place of Torah study, Yaakov was drawn towards it; and whenever she passed a house of idol worship, Eisav was drawn towards it. Yaakov desired the spiritual and Olam HaBa (the World to Come), while Eisav desired the physical and Olam HaZeh (the physical world). This was the cosmic battle that took place within Rivkah’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 he desires. 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 Tafeil

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

The ideal is for the tafeil (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 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 Yaakov and Eisav, a battle of perception, a battle of ikar versus tafeil.

Yaakov vs. Eisav

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 tafeil, corrupting their ideal relationship; he viewed the physical as ikar (primary) and the spiritual as tafeil (secondary), 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 blocked the image you wanted to see and projected 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, as 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 onto many episodes in his life. At the beginning of Parshas Toldos (B’reishis 25:27), the Torah describes Yaakov 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. 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 (tithe) 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 tafeil. Straw is the protective casing of wheat; independently, it is worthless. The same is true of salt. Anyone who cooks knows that salt itself is not meant to be tasted; it is meant only to draw out the flavor of the food. Salt is the tafeil, the enabler of taste.

Eisav specifically asked how to tithe straw and salt, both of which are tafeil. This was a reflection of his corrupted worldview. He essentially claimed that the tafeil – salt and straw – deserves attention as the ikar – the main focus. This was his view towards the physical and spiritual as a whole: Eisav sought to turn the tafeil – the physical – into the ikar. He placed the physical world as the center and main focus of life, with the spiritual simply serving to enable its pursuit. (See Commentary of Vilna Gaon to Aggados of Sabei d’vei Atuna, B’choros daf 8b.) 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 Ovadyah (1:18), Eisav is compared to a nation of straw. Eisav and his nation, Edom, are immersed in the world of tafeil and physicality. Chazal (B’reishis Rabbah 65:1) 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). So, too, Eisav portrayed himself as a tzadik on the outside, but on the inside, he was twisted and corrupt.

A Life of Ikar

Eisav distorted the ideal relationship between ikar and tafeil, valuing only the physical, limited surface, and cutting it off from any higher reality. Yaakov teaches us the true purpose of the tafeil, 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.


Shmuel Reichman is an inspirational speaker, writer, and coach who has lectured internationally at shuls, conferences, and Jewish communities on topics of Jewish Thought and Jewish Medical Ethics. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy (ShmuelReichman.com), the transformative online course that is revolutionizing how we engage in self-development. You can find more inspirational lectures, videos, and articles from Shmuel on his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.

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