Isaac loved Esau, because [Esau] fed him from his game, and Rebecca loved Jacob. (Genesis 25:28)

In the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron (the burial place of the Patriarchs) . . . Esau’s head lies in the bosom of Isaac. (Targum Yonatan, Genesis 50:13)

Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac and Rebecca, personified the perennial twinship of spirit and matter, idea and brute force, word and sword. Jacob was “a man of integrity, a dweller in the tents of study”;1 Esau was a “skilled hunter, a man of the field.”2 “The voice is the voice of Jacob, and the hands are the hands of Esau.”3

Yet a most special relationship existed between the materialist Esau and his saintly father, Isaac. The Torah describes Isaac’s delight in the delicacies Esau prepared from the harvest of his sword and bow; it was Esau whom Isaac summoned when he felt that his end was near, and whom he proposed to bless before his death. Obviously, there was more to Esau than the bandit, murderer and wife-snatcher we know.

Showdown at Hebron

Jacob and Esau not only shared a set of parents and a birthday; they were also buried on the same day.

The Midrash relates that when Jacob’s funeral procession reached the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, the burial place of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, they found Esau and his henchmen barring their path. Esau claimed that the sole remaining plot was his by inheritance, after Jacob had already taken his share when he buried his wife Leah in the cave. When Jacob’s children maintained that their father had bought out his brother’s share, Esau denied this. The transaction had been put in writing, but the deed was back in Egypt, and fleet-footed Naphtali was dispatched to retrieve it. Chushim, the deaf son of Dan, asked what the commotion was all about, and was incensed to learn that Esau had halted the funeral of his revered grandfather. With a mighty blow of his sword, Chushim severed Esau’s head, which rolled into the Cave of Machpelah and came to rest in Isaac’s lap, where it remains to this day. Thus it came to pass that “Esau’s head lies in the bosom of Isaac.”

Esau has a body and a head. Esau’s “body” is the bulk and mass of his material life. But a material life is not necessarily a profane life. In essence, the physical reality is no less a creation of G‑d’s, and no less holy and divine, than the loftiest spiritual existence; when properly harnessed and directed, the physical can be the greatest expression of the divine truth. Esau’s “head” is the consciousness that imparts awareness, purpose and direction to brute matter.

The holy materialist is a “skilled hunter,” proficient in the art of evasion, ambush and entrapment. The physical reality recognizes no master or authority, and it relates no function or purpose to itself other that its own perseverance and growth. So, to live a material life as a divine endeavor is an act of subterfuge. One eats, ostensibly to nourish one’s physical body; one engages in business, ostensibly to increase one’s wealth; one builds a career and a position in the community, ostensibly to amass prestige and power; yet this is but a connivance, a ruse by which to entrap the physical and exploit it toward a G‑dly end.

This was the hunter and gamesman Isaac loved. He loved his material son, who had learned to persevere and profit in the physical world. He loved Esau, who roamed the fields of material endeavor, never failing to bring home a tasty morsel for his spiritual father.

Jacob in Disguise

But material life is rife with pitfalls as great as its potentials, and Esau, the ultimate master of the material, was also its ultimate victim. His “head” ceased to lead his “body,” and became its servant and tool; instead of exploiting his material self, his higher faculties were exploited by it. The great trapper was ensnared by his prey and descended into a life of hedonism and violence.

Isaac, craving the spiritual delights implicit in the material realm, still hoped to employ Esau’s hunting prowess to extract them. But Rebecca understood that her elder son was too much a part of the material world to truly exploit it; she understood that only one who hails from a more spiritual place can hope to unearth the sublime potentials of the material while resisting its corrupting influence. So she dressed Jacob in Esau’s clothes and sent him to receive Isaac’s blessing for “the dew of heaven and the fat of the land.”

Thus was set the stage for the lifelong contest between the brothers “over the two worlds” of matter and spirit. Wrathfully, Esau watched Jacob’s encroachment on “his” realm, as the latter obtained the blessings by connivance and stealth; he watched the guileless scholar turn wily entrepreneur, matching the conniving Laban trick for trick and amassing great material wealth.

Esau still had his “head,” only now his spiritual motor made his corporeality all the more virulent. A “headless” body—a physical life devoid of all ideal and direction—is a negative thing; but when a head is subverted by its body, when a person’s spiritual sensitivity and vitality have been commandeered to serve his material drives, this is a materialism that is far more lethal, infiltrating the soul’s innermost chambers and poisoning what is finest in man and his world.

On the day that Jacob was laid to rest, Esau’s head was severed from his body. The body, divorced from its spiritual vitality, went on to spawn the soulless materialism that is the commonplace challenge to the voice of Jacob. The head, freed from its corporeal subversion, was reunited with its source and kindred spirit in the bosom of Isaac.