Between the Lines Parshat Toldot: Devil in the Details
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Toldot(Genesis 25:19-28:9)

Devil in the Details

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

In this week's parsha, we are introduced to our patriarch, Jacob, and his twin brother, Esau. Rashi explains (Genesis 25:27) that it was impossible to distinguish between the different natures of the twins while they were still minors, but as soon as they reached the age of 13, their true characteristics emerged: Jacob went off to learn Torah, while Esau went off to corrupt behavior.

It seems strange that Esau's negativity emerged so suddenly - especially since the Talmud (Shabbat 105b) states explicitly that a person's inclination toward negativity (yetzer hara) does not operate in this fashion. The yetzer hara, rather than advocating sudden change, entices us to sin by urging, "Just do this one small thing." The next day, it tries to persuade us to perform another small misdeed - until eventually, a person can be convinced to serve idols.

So if the nature of the yetzer hara is to gradually wear down our defenses, how could Esau have gone off the Torah path so abruptly the moment he turned 13?

Based on our Sages' explanation of the nature of the yetzer hara, we must conclude that Esau's behavioral shift was in fact a gradual process. We can understand this by looking more carefully at the wording of Rashi's comment. Rashi states that when Jacob and Esau were children, it was impossible to DISTINGUISH the difference between them - not that there was no difference! Although Esau's external behavior may have been the same as Jacob's; nevertheless, something about them was not the same.

What was this difference? We can suggest that Esau was a "big picture" person, who was more concerned with generalities than with details. Although as a child he performed the same mitzvot as Jacob, he disregarded the nuances and subtleties of the commandments. It was this inattention that ultimately led him reject the Torah path entirely.

* * *

'SMALL' MITZVOT

Dismissing the importance of details can lead to two primary dangers. First, our Sages advise (Avot 2:1), "Be as careful with a 'minor' mitzvah as you are with a 'major' one, for you do not know the reward for the mitzvot." Who are we to say that what seems like a minor detail is in fact unimportant? Since we do not know the extent of the reward for our actions, it is foolish to disregard details as being unnecessary.

Furthermore, even if we are correct in our assessment, and what seems small to us is in fact small, the cumulative result of a person's inattention to detail may eventually result in his performing more serious transgressions. The care and attention we put into performing the details of God's commandments can serve as a buffer zone to prevent us from performing more serious misdeeds.

We see this idea in Deuteronomy 7:12, which enumerates all the blessings that will come to the Jewish people "if you listen (eikev tishm'un)" to God. The word "eikev" literally means "heel," as Rashi explains: "If you observe the seemingly insignificant commandments that a person tramples with his heel, then all the blessing will come." If we are careful with the small mitzvot, eventually we will merit all of them. This shows how much we risk losing if we focus only on the big picture and ignore the fine points of mitzvot.

* * *

HINTED IN THE NAMES

Esau's name hints to his lack of concern with details. Rashi explains (Genesis 25:25) that the name "Esau" comes from the word "asui," meaning "completed." Esau was interested only in the finished, final product, not the details - and this approach led to his eventual rejection of the big picture.

The name Yaakov, on the other hand, contains within it the word "eikev" (heel). Jacob is born holding on to his brother's heel, demonstrating his attention to the details that are so easily trampled on and overlooked. For Jacob, the nuances and details of the mitzvot are top priority. This awareness strengthens his commitment to the framework within which the details belong.

May we all merit to serve God in totality, and not miss the trees for the forest (or vice versa). May we recognize that big things sometimes come in small packages, and create, through our attention to details, a shield of spiritual success and blessing.

Published: October 3, 2006

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Visitor Comments: 3

(3) Akiva HaShahor, November 2, 2010 12:09 PM

The difficulty of the small stuff

Even as an Orthodox Jew who believe in the Divine Origin of the Torah, I often find it hard to do the "little mitzvot". I really understood the point about the Yetzer HaRa not trying to convince someone to forsake the entire Torah outright but rather by suggesting that it's no big deal to forgo this mitzvah or that mitzvah until a person finds himself totally removed from Torah living. For me this struggle is compounded by the fact that i can not afford to live in the areas of my city that is populated by Torah observant Jews. This isolation from the chorus of the Shechinah that any concentration of the pious creates leaves the whispering voice of the Yetzer HaRa even more magnified. It is really beginning to dawn on me the significants of the line "Shetatzileni me'adam ra, meyetzer ra, umehaver ra, umishshakhen ra...". What I am now realizing that this prayer is teaching that the Yetzer HaRa works through many different medium, one of the most crucial being you immediate environment. this in turn begins to answer one of the most puzzling questions that I always had about Netinat Torah. Why did HaShem insist on giving the Torah to an entire nation of two million people when it was obvious that many would neglect both the small and larger details? What I conclude from this weeks parsha and the discussion of Esau neglecting the small stuff is that Hashem knew (as He always does) that no single Jew ever really preforms the mitzvot by himself/herself. Hashem knew that a person was more likely to keep the smallest detail of Torah if they were in a Torah rich environment. So, He gave the Torah to the entire nation, both the scrupulous and unscrupulous alike, so that one could be the light to the other. In conclusion, I guess I've learned that Judaism is a communal religion, since our mission of freeing the Divine sparks from the kalipot is a communal one.

(2) Gershon, November 11, 2007 7:50 PM

re: rachel

Esav did trick Yitzchak this way, but that makes Rashi's point even more meaningful - you couldn't "disctinguish" between Yaakov and Esav, primarily because Esav tricked Yitzchak into thinking he was like Yaakov.

Esav pretended to care about the insignificant details, (i.e. the tithing of the salt) to make himself look like Yaakov who was the true Tzaddik. But for Esav this was just a scheme, it didn't define who he was. It defined his ability to 'trap game' with his mouth.

Interesting that Yaakov had to resort to some trickery of his own to get the blessing of the firstborn. The difference was, he was forced into doing so and this trickery was something that he resented since it went against everything he stood for,whereas trickery for Esav defined him.

(1) Rachel, November 9, 2007 9:07 AM

I'm a bit confused...

I remember learning that Esav used to trick Yitzchak by his attention to seemingly insignificant details, e.g. tithing salt. How does that relate to his focus on the general?

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