Our sages tell us that before G‑d created our world, He created an “earlier” state of existence—the world of Tohu (“Chaos”). But this was a world of “much light and scant vessels.” As a result, the vessels burst and the light escaped. G‑d then created “our” world—the world of Tikkun (“Correction”), constructed with “broad containers and scant light” that allow it to function and endure.
(“Light” (or) is the Kabbalistic term for an emanation of Divine energy; “containers” (kelim) are the Divine forces that channel, define, and focus the “light.” A soul, for example, is a “light,” while a body is a “vessel.” A world, whether physical or spiritual, consists of lights deriving from the Divine power to reveal and bestow, and vessels deriving from the Divine power to define and delimit.)
There was a reason for this “debacle.” G‑d desired that our “correct” world should be built upon the ruins of Tohu, so that we should delve beneath its surface to unearth the “sparks of holiness” that are the residue of this primordial world, tap their potent potential, and ultimately integrate the two realities, capturing the immense light of Tohu in the broad vessels of Tikkun.
The Kabbalists see Esau and Jacob as the embodiment of the cosmic twinship of Tohu and Tikkun.
Esau is the raw, untamed energy of Tohu. He is a destructive force, because he lacks the discipline and control that would channel this energy in a useful, constructive way. But he is also a very powerful force—far more powerful than the constricted and defined energies that animate Jacob’s correct and orderly world. The challenge, as we said, is to bring together the cosmic twins in a way that exploits the best of both worlds: to marry the immense energy of Tohu with the focus and control of Tikkun.
The struggle to achieve this synergy is the life-history of the biblical twins, and the essence of human history as a whole. Esau and Jacob emerge from the same womb (where they were already fighting), and the rest of their lives is defined by the effort to bring them back together.
But the conflict is too deep, too vast, to be resolved in one lifetime—even a lifetime as rich, tragic and glorious as Jacob’s 147 years. The forces of Tohu are too expansive, too hungry for life, to submit to the rigors of Tikkun; and the vessels of Tikkun are too focused, too structured, to embrace the passions of Tohu.
Some very serious attempts are made. Isaac endeavors to create a partnership between his two sons by bequeathing the spiritual legacy of Abraham to Jacob and granting the material blessings of earth to Esau. But Rebecca intervenes: Esau is still too raw, too unformed, to be entrusted with this role. If he is granted the “dew of heaven and the fat of the land” there’ll be another explosion.
Had Esau been allowed to marry his predestined soulmate, Leah, as Jacob married Rachel, the brothers (now brothers-in-law, as well) would have shared in the founding of the nation of Israel. But Leah wept her eyes out at the prospect, and Jacob ended up with both wives (as he had ended up with both blessings) and all twelve tribes.
Upon his return from Haran, Jacob seems ready to take the big step: he dispatches angels and gifts to Esau and initiates a reunion. But on the night before the fateful meeting, Jacob encounters the spirit of Esau, and instead of embracing, man and angel wrestle all night. Jacob, again, emerges as the victor, and exacts a concession from Esau’s angel that the blessings—all of them—and the name “Israel” are rightfully and exclusively the younger brother’s.
The next morning, the brothers meet in the flesh, but their long-awaited reunion is an anticlimax: both know that the true encounter has already taken place, resulting in yet another battle and victory rather than a union and integration. Jacob locks his daughter Dinah in a chest to prevent her marriage to Esau, eliminating the chance that the daughter will take on the task which her mother had refused (with the result, say our sages, that Jacob loses her not to his twin brother but to a Canaanite prince). Jacob and Esau embrace and kiss, but only superficially; Esau extends a half-hearted invitation for a joint life together, but Jacob drags his feet. The brothers meet again only at their father’s funeral, and then in death, when Esau’s head (but only his head) finds its resting place in the lap of Isaac in the Cave of Machpelah, on the day that Jacob is laid to rest in the same burial place.
So the quest to unite Tohu and Tikkun extends beyond their lifetimes, to the nations of Israel and Edom. The eight kings who “reigned in Edom, before there reigned any king over the children of Israel” are the volatile forces of Tohu, while the people of Israel proceed to Sinai where they are entrusted with the 613 commandments that serve as the vessels for tikkun olam, the correction and civilization of the world. The conflict rages on in the battles between Judah and Rome, between spirit and matter, between law and lust, to be resolved only when the struggles of humanity culminate in the day when “the saviors shall ascend Mount Zion to judge the mountain of Esau.”