The main focus in the Torah portion of Toldot is on Yitzchak and Rivka’s twin sons, Yaakov and Esav. There were vast differences between Esav and Yaakov. They are two diametrically opposing prototypes, and the Torah is giving us a valuable lesson.
What is the root of the difference between them?
Torah describe Esav as a hunter. “The lads grew up and Esav became one who knows hunting; a man of the field” (Gen. 25:27). A hunter is a person who forcibly takes the things that he wants. He knows how to exploit the world for his needs. Our sages teach that Esav hunted not only animals but women as well; he would hunt women from their husbands and molest them. Further, our sages explain on the verse (25:28) “And Isaac loved Esav because of the hunting in his mouth,” that Esav also ‘hunted his father,’ as Rashi explains: Esav would ‘hunt’ Isaac and fool him with his words, asking fictional questions such as how does one tithe salt and straw, so that his father would think that he is ‘super religious,’ scrupulous in observing the commandments.
Hunting as compared to any other pursuit is a vocation that takes only, without giving. The hunter exploits and does not contribute or develop. It is not creative. Hunting represents humanity’s greatest and most severe disease: egotism.
Yaakov by contrast is a simple man; “…but Jacob was a simple man, dwelling in tents…” – the word tam means ‘simple’ but it also means ‘complete’ and ‘wholesome’…Yaakov was not familiar with Esav’s techniques... In addition to being a ‘simple man’ he is also a ‘dweller of tents’... meaning on the simple level, he was a shepherd. To care for sheep represents the opposite of hunting. To be a shepherd is to be in the service of the world in order to develop and populate it.
This is particularly noticeable regarding Yaakov, who at first tends to his father's flocks, then afterwards he tends to the flocks of Lavan – still not tending his own flocks. The message is that Yaakov represents dedication to the development and habitation of the world. Thus our sages also teach that when Yaakov arrived at Shechem, he established a currency, marketplaces and bathhouses... things that were in the service of people.
‘Yaakov dwelled in tents’ also signifies that he was occupied with the study of Torah, in the tents, the study halls of Shem and Ever, who were the righteous leaders of that generation. When Yaakov studied Torah it was not a self-serving act; his intent was to be a ladder connecting heaven and Earth; he sought to bring Hashem’s presence into this world. This is the meaning of the words that Yaakov was an Ish Tam, meaning a simple man—a man who gives to the world meaning and values, by occupying himself with Torah and with everyday life and the betterment of society at the same time.
The struggle between the forces of Yaakov and Esav is also a struggle going on constantly within each and every one of us. It represents the difference between being a person who gives of himself and seeks the betterment of society, or conversely, being a person who takes what he wants forcibly from others, and exploits his surroundings, thinking only of himself.
Torah teaches us to be merciful, and to seek out opportunities to perform acts of kindness. We must all check ourselves constantly and ask ourselves: What powers and drives my life? Is it the desire to give, or the desire to take? The most important message in the Torah is ‘And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Rabbi Akiva taught that this is a major principle of the Torah. Why? Because it sets the tone of who I am in this world. Am I serving Hashem? Or, like Esav, am I serving my own ego?