The portion of Toldot begins with: “These are the histories of Isaac, the son of Abraham.” What are these histories? Rashi, the pre-eminent commentator, explains that these refer to his sons, Jacob and Esau, mentioned in the weekly portion.
What does this mean? It means that Jacob and Esau express, to some extent, the ideals of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham is said to embody kindness, while Isaac represents judgment. And so, too, Jacob and Esau. Jacob adopts mainly Abraham's kindness, and Esau embodies Isaac's judgment.
However, they are not precisely similar to their fathers because Abraham and Isaac were righteous. In contrast, in the case of Jacob and Esau, one was righteous and the other wicked. Please note that we are not talking exclusively about their behavior but their identity.
It is said: "And the boys struggled within her (Rebecca's womb)." Once again, we turn to Rashi’s commentary: they argued about the inheritance of two worlds.
What are these two worlds? We are familiar with this world and the world to come from previous lessons (see: Living Twice). But what does each of them want? If we say Jacob wants the spiritual world to come, and Esau wants this material world, then there is no conflict! Each son agrees that the other will take the remaining share. So, what were they fighting over?
However, Rabbi Yehuda Lowe, the Maharal of Prague, explained that each wanted both worlds. Jacob, indeed, had a natural inclination towards the world to come. And it is clear to us that spirituality is more vital within Jacob. Notwithstanding, the challenge of Jacob's mission is to inherit this world, too.
Perhaps because it does not come naturally to Jacob, we see that throughout the history of the children of Jacob, the Jews enjoyed only limited periods of political success. Still, their task is to reconcile with this world and to inherit it to attain the sanctity of place in this material world. Similar to what we achieved in our time through the return to Zion and the establishment of the State of Israel.
In contrast, this world was guaranteed for the descendants of Edom, Esau, whose destiny is fulfilled by Rome and the West. This world is self-evident, to the extent that the sages hinted that the name Esau has the numerical value of peace in Hebrew. This arises because he (Esau and his descendants) rules this world; he determines the ‘peace’ for all. On the other hand, his problem is the world to come. For this purpose, the Edomites (Romans) adapted Christian theology to save man from oblivion and promised him that he would inherit the world to come.
Our portion, Toldot, shows that Jacob and Esau struggle to complete themselves. Jacob, by eventually receiving not only Abraham's blessing but also Esau's blessing, becomes not only Jacob, who is somewhat spiritually weak in the end, but also Israel.
How does this change happen? By connecting the spiritual and physical worlds as one, Jacob becomes worthy of being called' Israel when he integrates with Esau's blessing.