(This was my first “Torah Sparks” blog post, published on November 17, 2009. I made a few small additions before reposting it in 2020.)
And [Rebecca’s] days for giving birth filled, and hey! Twins were in her womb! And the first one emerged red all over, like a robe of fur; and they called his name Eisav. After that, his brother emerged, and his hand was holding onto the akeiv of Eisav, so he called his name Ya-akov. (Genesis/Bereishit 25:24-26)
Eisav (עֵשָׂו) = (“Esau” in English.) Doer? (Probably from the verb asah, עָשַׂה = did, made. Aso, עֲשׂוֹ = to do.)
akeiv (עָקֵב) = heel. (From the verb akav, עָקַב = grasp by the heel, cheat.)
Ya-akov (יַעֲקֺב) = (“Jacob” in English.) He grasps by the heel.
Isaac and Rebecca name the first one Eisav, and he grows up to be a hunter and a man of action. They name the second one Ya-akov because he was born holding onto his twin brother’s heel . Clearly this heel-holding is important. But what does it mean?
The traditional Jewish interpretation is that Jacob is trying to pull Esau back, because even in the womb Jacob knows that he, not Esau, should receive the inheritance and the blessing that belong to the firstborn. Since he fails to switch places with Esau at birth, the adult Jacob resorts to trickery to get the rights of the firstborn.
But what if Jacob is hanging onto Esau because he cannot bear to be separated from his twin? Esau has always been with him, since they were conceived. Rebecca noticed the agitation in her belly as the brothers struggled, or wrestled, or perhaps danced inside her. Then suddenly Esau was gone. How could Jacob stand the sudden loss?
The birth process separates the twins, and also separates them into two halves of one person, dividing the traits of a human being between them. Esau is a physical man, hairy like an animal, focused on eating, taking wives, and killing. Jacob is an intellectual, a smooth-skinned smooth-talker, focused on cooking up the future and getting words of blessing.
That’s why neither Jacob nor Esau can be whole until he takes on some of his brother’s characteristics. In next week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, Jacob becomes interested in taking a wife and acquires physical strength when he sees Rachel and rolls the big stone off the well (Genesis 29:10). And in the following portion, Vayishlach, Esau learns to think well enough to become a leader of a tribe (Genesis 32:7). But neither twin can be at peace until they finally meet again in old age, and kiss and weep together (Genesis 33:4).