Toldot – Isaac/Esau

Why do we consider Esau to have been Jewish, while his uncle, Yishmael, was not considered Jewish?  One possible reason is that Esau was the son of Rivka, who was the Jewish wife of Isaac, whereas Yishmael was the son of Hagar, Abraham’s maidservant, who was an Egyptian woman, not of Jewish extraction.  However, this reason does not stand the test of logic, because Jacob had two “wives” who were not of Jewish extraction – Bilhah and Zipah (maidservants of Leah and Rachel) – and yet their children were considered Jewish.

So, we must look for a different reason. In the early generations before the giving of the Torah, family affiliation was passed down from one generation to the next when the offspring followed in the footsteps of the fathers.  For example, since Isaac followed in his father’s footsteps, he was considered Abraham’s natural heir and successor (and of course, the Torah declared Isaac to be the natural heir and successor).  So, when Yishmael failed to carry on his father’s tradition of monotheism, and left the track altogether, he was no longer considered “Jewish.”  The same was true of Esau – he failed to continue his father’s path of worship and monotheism.  Yet, he was still considered “Jewish” – and we must understand why this would be.

The answer is in the nature of their respective distance from their fathers’ paths.  Yishmael distanced himself completely from Abraham’s path.  Although later in life, he did “tshuva,” placing his brother Isaac at the head of the funeral procession of Abraham and recognizing Isaac’s primacy, nevertheless even that changed afterward.  Yishmael was simply not part of the Jewish nation.  However, Esau distanced himself only in body, but not in soul.  To the end of his days, he retained his Jewish “head.”  He learned Torah and monotheism from his father Isaac and that remained with him until the end of his days.  It was his yetzer harah – “evil inclination” – that led him astray, but nevertheless, he remained, at heart, a Jew.

For more detailed explanation, go to

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, vol. 15, pp 191-199

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