The Teaching of the Torah Twins

It is human nature to be impressed and inspired upon meeting or hearing about an unusually holy or exceptionally righteous person. Whether it is their religious devotion, their dedication to the study of wisdom, or their humility and generous benevolence with others that catches our eye, we can be drawn to emulate their behavior and wish to live and act like they do. Such an encounter, however, can be discouraging instead of inspiring. “I’m not that type of person. I just never was.” Or: “I was born with so much energy; I will never be able to sit down long enough to become proficient in Torah study.” Another: “People just annoy me – that’s the way I am. I wouldn’t be able to get along with them.” Do we all have the potential to become righteous people, or are we limited by birth?
Jacob and Esau may be the Torah’s most famous set of twins and it is remarkable just how different these two twins actually became. The Talmud views Esau as wicked and frivolous, and Jacob as righteous and studious. It’s amazing that two people chose life-paths diametrically opposed to one another came from the same womb. Why, in fact, did the Almighty put these unlikely twins together? What purpose did it serve?
R. Yom Tov ben Avraham Asevilli (1250-1330, commonly known by the Hebrew acronym Ritva), a medieval Halakhist famous for his commentary on the Talmud, addresses this question in his commentary on the Passover Haggadah. He writes that Jacob and Esau were twins to teach us an important lesson about greatness: “They were both in the same womb so that the whole world would understand that Jacob’s righteousness was his own accomplishment – not because of any natural propensity or because of traits he inherited from his parents. Because if that was the case, Esau, who emerged from the same womb together with Jacob, would have also ended up righteous – but he instead lived a corrupt life, while Jacob lived with righteousness.”
Every person brings to the table different talents, propensities, and temperaments. What one finds challenging another might find easy. One important lesson that Jacob and Esau’s co-existence imparts is that although each of our paths may be very different, they can all potentially go to the same destination of righteous living.


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