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Going Up the Ladder

Old Jaffa

The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. — Genesis 25:22

The Torah portion for this week, Toldot, which means “offspring,” is from Genesis 25:19—28:9, and the Haftorah is from Malachi 1:1–2:7.

Scripture tells us that when Rebekah was pregnant, she felt a whole lot of kicking. Jewish tradition teaches that when she passed by a place of idol worship, Esau would kick relentlessly. When she passed by a house of Torah study, Jacob would kick excitedly. There were no ultrasounds in those days, so Rebekah couldn’t figure out how one baby could have two very different dispositions.

Rebekah received her answer when God explained that she was going to have twins. Now it made sense, but we are left wondering if this is fair to Esau, who seems doomed from the very beginning as the wayward son. If he was born with a tendency toward evil, can we really blame him for following his nature? And the same is true for Jacob. If he was born yearning for righteousness, can we be impressed that he turned out as such?

There is a story about the Rebbe of Kotzk who asked his students the following question: “If there are two people on a ladder – one on the third rung and one on the fifth – who is higher?” The students answered the obvious, “The one on the fifth.” “Maybe yes, maybe no,” said the Rebbe. “It depends on which direction they are going.” The rabbi was teaching his students that where a person stands in life is not nearly as important as where they are headed.

Both Esau and Jacob were born with natural tendencies, but they were also born with free choice. Esau had the choice to fight his evil inclination and channel his passions for good. No one forced him to choose a life of immorality. Had he chosen the path of goodness, he could have shot up the ladder of righteousness, way past Jacob.

Jacob had a choice, too. He could have stayed in his comfort zone, never falling from his place of righteousness, but never going any higher either. He could have entered the world and left it just as he came, and no one would have complained. But Jacob chose to push himself and spent his life climbing ever higher.

Like Jacob and Esau, we all come to the world with strengths and weaknesses. We may not have chosen them, but they are ours. Yet, none of that matters anyway. At the end of the day, God won’t be impressed with our natural talents or disappointed with our character flaws. He’ll just want to know how we used them. Did we try to improve our character? Did we use our talents for good?

It won’t matter where we finish on the ladder of righteousness, only how far we have climbed and in what direction.

With prayers for shalom, peace,

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President

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