Last year, we discussed whether Yitzchak really did not know about his two sons’ characters in mistakenly deeming Esav appropriate for the main bracha. This year, we shall discuss a well-known midrash. Hopefully this will be a platform to gain an appreciation for the depth of the words of Chazal and the issues that a seemingly innocuous midrash presents to the trained eye (and to me too!). The midrash[1] is quoted in Rashi (25;22), and says that when Rivkah was pregnant, whenever she would go past the yeshiva, Ya’akov would kick to try and get out of her womb, whilst whenever she went past a place of idol worship, Esav tried to kick out. It was this contradictory behaviour that caused her to seek advice from Shem (Noach’s son) and she was told: she is mothering twins who have opposite futures ahead of them, as reflected in their different behaviours. There are two separate issues to discuss here; the first is more fundamental and the second just more fun!

The concept of free-will (bechirah) is central to HaShem’s rewards and punishments. If my entire life has been pre-destined to the extent that I control none of my actions or thoughts, then I am not to be held responsible for the actions that I do; hence reward and punishment necessitates free-will. This means that I have a real choice as to what actions I plan to take in any given situation. The problem from the aforementioned midrash is the following: It seems that even before Esav was born, HaShem created him with a tendency towards serving idols; surely this means that he has no free-will. He was created and born with an ingrained attachment to idolatry. This is problematic for two reasons; firstly because this lack of free-will obviates reward and punishment, and secondly, we are told that Esav’s marriage to two idol-worshipers was a great source of distress for Yitzchak and Rivkah (26;34-35, Rashi), who saw this as a rebellion of sorts. But if Rivkah knew (from Shem) that she was going to have a son with ‘idol-worshipping genes,’ why get particularly upset and view Esav’s actions as rebellious; Esav was surely merely following his ‘genetic’ characteristics and had no free-will anyway so is not to blame? [A variation of the question is why did Rivkah like Ya’akov more than Esav (25;28) if both were merely actors in a pre-written bechira-less script?

The answer[2] is as illuminating as it is contemporarily practical. Free-will does not mean that there is a completely equal pull to do good as there is to do bad; it does not mean a 50-50 choice between good and bad. Rather, as long as it is not one hundred percent inevitable to pick one option, there is still free-will. What this means is that someone might have an overwhelming tendency (even genetic) to do something wrong, but as long as it could have been possible to resist, he is held responsible for his actions for they were made out of free-will. A 99%-1% choice between good and bad is still free-will. This is of contemporary interest, with several court cases presenting the accused as being not to blame because ‘they were brought up to do this,’ and one case even proved that the accused had a genetic tendency to steal. Rav Efrati proves this principle from the fact that the Ramchal says that after Adam HaRishon’s sin, our spiritual make-up changed to the extent that our religious souls were less potent and it was easier to be drawn into sin. Surely this means a removal of free-will? No, because even though the shift moved from 50-50 to (let’s say) 70-30, free-will still exists, for it is still possible to choose either bad or good, no matter how much effort each choice entails.

There are two other illustrations of this principle. Firstly, HaShem hardened Phaorah’s heart in Egypt so that he would not allow the Jews to go free. Was this not a removal of free-will, and if so how could HaShem have punished Pharoah with the plagues? Again, one can answer that HaShem did not remove all ability to choose from Pharoah in hardening his heart; He merely made Pharoah more susceptible to refusing and holding steadfast to his view despite the awesome power of the plagues. Similarly, do we find that each morning[3] we daven to HaShem to ‘force our yetzer hara to serve You.’ Is this not davening to remove our free-will, and if so how can we expect reward for the mitzvos we subsequently perform? Again, the answer is that this is not a removal of free-will; we are davening that it should be easier to do mitzvos than sin, but there is still a possibility to sin and so there is still free-will. Another proof that this principle is true is that there are periods in life where we receive special Divine assistance to perform mitzvos; this means the balance between good and bad is not 50-50, yet there must still be free-will. For example, Rav Yonassan Eibshitz writes[4] that someone who decides to repent receives special assistance from HaShem to achieve their repentance, but then later HaShem removes this assistance and tests them, in order to provide them with a spiritual challenge and make sure that their repentance will endure. Thus, we see different balances between the choices of good and evil in a person’s life, but free-will remains throughout the changes in the balance proportions.

That’s the first issue taken care of. The second issue that this midrash raises is that Chazal[5] reveal to us that each baby is taught Torah by an angel when in their mother’s womb. If so, why did Ya’akov want to kick out of Rivkah’s womb to enter the yeshiva if he was being taught by an angel? We shall quote three answers, the third of which we shall draw a practical lesson from. Rav Shmulevitz used to answer that this Chazal also says that the angel causes the baby to forget the Torah he has learnt, when the baby leaves the womb. This is because we are not to acquire Torah (and mitzvos) as free gifts, but rather by exerting ourselves and working on ourselves to perform them. This is why Yaakov ‘wanted out;’ in order to start learning Torah himself as opposed to being spoon-fed. Another answer is perhaps that Yaakov wanted to kick out so that Esav would be born too by a yeshiva, and have this positive spiritual influence on him in life.[6] Our third answer is given by Rav Shach. He says that Yaakov wanted to get away from the bad spiritual influences of Esav; one can have the best teacher in the world (and angel), but if you are part of a bad crowd, this will nullify the teacher’s effect.
Thus, the lesson here is to be aware that one is greatly influenced by their surroundings. As the Rambam puts it[7] ‘it is the natural inbuilt way of man to be influenced by his friends and environment with regards to his attitudes and deeds.’ We do not realise the extent of this influence. Not that a Torah theme needs proof/validity from external sources, but it is worth bringing some proof from two social psychology experiments (there are many more). Asch (1956) set up an experiment whereby participants had to match up two lines of equal length (an easy task). However, six of the seven participants were instructed (secretly) to say the wrong answers. The result was that 75% of the people they used to be the seventh (genuine) participants went along with the others in giving wrong responses, even though the decision was wrong. And Moscovici (1976) found that there was even influence by minorities on majorities. Nowadays, one’s environment includes media exposure, which also influences oneself. For example, when Jamaica implemented strict gun control and censured gun scenes on TV and in films in 1974, robbery and shooting rates dropped dramatically (Diener & Crandall, 1979).
Therefore, in summary, a midrash and other words of Chazal have depth which is brought out upon investigation, and the specific theme that we emphasised is realising the extent of environmental influences on a person, and select one’s surroundings accordingly.
Have a great Shabbes,

[1] It is Midrash Rabbah 63;6, also brought in the Yalkut Shimoni on the pasuk 25;22, with one difference which could be significant; see footnote 6.
[2] The principle of the answer is taken from Rav Binyamin Efrati in his notes to the Hebrew Feldheim edition of the Ramchal’s sefer ‘Derech HaShem,’ chelek alef, perek 3;8.
[3] Vechof es yitzreinu lehistabed lach in the bracha of hagomel chassadim le’amo yisrael
[4] Sefer ‘Ya’aros D’vash,’ drash alef; on chodesh elul
[5] Gemarra Niddah 30b
[6] This is based on a diyuk in the way the midrash is quoted in Bereishis Rabbah; it says that Yaakov and Esav’s spiritual battle already began in the womb, and brings the madras that we are discussing immediately afterwards. It seems that this was part of their fight. However, the Yalkut Shimoni brings this part of the midrash as a new point (‘davar acher’).
[7] Rambam Hilchos De’os 6;1

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