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Tapping Our Potential

Tapping Our Potential


Jacob was cooking soup, and his older brother wanted a bowl. Jacob offered the soup in exchange for Esau’s firstborn rights. Esau didn’t hesitate; he happily surrendered his birthright for a bowl of soup.

Years later, their father, Isaac, wanted to bless Esau. Jacob donned Esau’s garments and presented himself to his blind father as Esau. Jacob received the blessings, and Esau was incensed. “He deceived me twice,” cried Esau. “First he took my firstborn rights, and now he took my blessing!”

This story presents a question: Esau was understandably perturbed over losing the blessing. But why was he suddenly concerned over his birthright? He had surrendered it with barely a protest years earlier, so what changed now?

The Biggest Challenge

So long as the hurdle seems insurmountable, the path to recovery is blockedWhen faced with an internal challenge, be it obsession, depression, addiction or a craving for food, the first step must be nurturing faith in our ability to overcome the challenge. So long as the hurdle seems insurmountable, the path to recovery is blocked. The journey to recovery can commence only if we possess a firm belief in our ability to succeed.

The journey can begin, but there is a long way to go. The road is strewn with obstacles, and overcoming them requires motivation, commitment and a great investment of energy. Knowing that we are capable of completing the journey does not guarantee that we will do so. It is only when we have succeeded in ridding ourselves of negative traits that we are truly liberated.

Our initial belief in our ability to overcome was unproven. The actual demonstration of success reinforces our faith in ourselves.

We are still not completely free; we are still at risk of succumbing to our weaknesses again. But we have gained real confidence. And we now know that, even if we should fail again, there will always be hope. We have overcome once and, if necessary, can do it again. This awareness stimulates confidence and joy, the ecstatic thrill of success.

In the Grip of the Body

The soul faces a similar challenge. It is given a task by G‑d to descend from heaven and function on earth. In a realm focused on materialism, pleasure, ego and self-worship, the soul is asked to introduce selflessness, devotion to a higher cause, and sanctity. A staggering task, but the soul contains the tools to succeed.

Jacob, the pious scholar, represents the soul. Esau, the wicked hunter, represents the body. Esau appeared a formidable foe; at first glance one would doubt that Jacob could ever prevail. The showdown transpired over a bowl of soup. Jacob allowed Esau the soup, but forced him to surrender his claim to the firstborn rights. This was Jacob’s way of saying that they might grapple, but from here on he would always have the strength to emerge triumphant—he is now the firstborn.

Now Esau realized that the birthright wasn’t merely a hypothetical toolEsau conceded the point. He was not overly bothered by the soul’s untapped ability to triumph, because he knew that tapping into this potential is difficult. In fact, most people never tap into it; they accept the formidability of their foe, and surrender long before the struggle begins. Thus, Esau rested secure in the knowledge that the soul’s vast potential will, most often, be left untapped.

Then disaster struck. Jacob challenged Esau and won; he actually received the blessing.1 The blessing represents the empowerment of the soul. It is Jacob’s spiritual delight, his soulful realization that he has bested Esau. It is the euphoric realization that comes with having conquered our will at least once.2

Now Esau was perturbed—about the blessing and the birthright. Now he realized that the birthright wasn’t merely a hypothetical tool never to be used; Jacob had used it once, and intended to use it again. With this dawning realization, Esau belatedly protested the sale of the birthright.

The good news for you and me is that Esau’s protests went unheeded. Neither the blessing nor the birthright was taken from Jacob. We are thus truly empowered to overcome the wiles and temptations, the cravings and yearnings, of our temporal and materialistic selves, and rise to the sacred worship of G‑d.


This explains why Jacob engaged in duplicitous behavior, dressing in Esau’s garments and presenting a false front. The soul’s objective is to introduce G‑dliness into a unG‑dly world. To accomplish this, the soul must fully engage the world. This engagement appears on the surface to be an acceptance of the unG‑dly nature of our world. Yet, in truth, it is a clandestine effort to reverse its unholy trend and introduce G‑d.
Jacob thus behaved in the same fashion. He dressed up to look like Esau, and appeared to have become just like Esau. However, his purpose was not integration with materialism, but its sanctification.


We now also understand why Jacob disguised himself as Esau to collect the blessings, when he could have demanded them outright on account of having purchased the firstborn right. Jacob’s purchased birthright didn’t entitle him to Esau’s blessings; it merely empowered him to fight for them. Without a struggle, the vast potential of the soul remains untapped. This is why Jacob had to work for the blessings, rather than claim them as his right.

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, and a frequent contributor to The Judaism Website— He has lectured extensively on a variety of Jewish topics, and his articles have appeared in many print and online publications. For more on Rabbi Gurkow and his writings, visit
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David Mark Margate, FL November 13, 2015

Esau had ADHD Because Esau had Attention Deficit with Hyperactivity Disorder, Rebekah wisely counseled Isaac to apprentice him to Great-Uncle Ishmael, who taught him to be a mighty hunter. Esau was able to gratify his appetites, and still make a living. We may not all have the ability to found a people or prophesy, but it should not prevent us from serving G-d with our natural abilities. The identification of Esau with Edom, Rome, the Church, and anti-semitism in general was later, and unfair. That is my drash, as parent of a special-needs young man who is doing the best he can with the abilities with which he was born. Thank you for reading this. God loves everyone equally: the Jacobs and Esaus, the Sarahs and Hagars, and the Ishmaels, too. Reply

Ruth Houston, TX November 24, 2011

Thank you Thank you for sharing. Only now, have I grasped the meaning of this parshah.

Shalom Reply

Anonymous Mesa, Arizona, USA November 23, 2011

Tapping Our Potential Your teaching Rabbi Gurkow in this subject makes so much sense. It is kind of hard to play a roll that does not feel right because it is not in us. But when it comes to the spiritual battle withing ourselve, then, I guess one can do that. The only thing is to learn how to do it. Guess that the Spirit of Hashem, Blessed be His Name, will always help to empower us. Reply

derek kihei, hi November 23, 2011

addiction Rabbi I agree with most of what you said, except with one point. You state about knowing about the end of the journey, addiction I believe is a life long journey of recovery...No end...Try reading the 12 steps thru the words of Rabbi Twerski ...I am greatful you are working with addictions but like Torah, addictions are hidden in many levels...
O N L Y 80 today in Maui. Reply