Esau’s Birthright – Questions by Joel Cohen
The Bible tells us that when Rebecca was pregnant with Esau and Jacob, the two struggled even in her womb. Esau, though, was the elder, having emerged first. The two were born to be different. Esau, loved by his father, to whom he brought game, was a hunter, a man of the field; Jacob, loved by his mother, was a softer man who “abided in tents,” — interpreted as studying God’s law.
One day, as Jacob cooked a stew, the famished Esau returned from the field. He beckoned Jacob to share some with him. In response, Jacob demanded, in exchange, that Esau sell him, that very day, Esau’s “birthright,” to which Esau was entitled by virtue of his elder status. Esau, recognizing the dangerousness of the life that he led as a hunter, quickly yielded: “Look, I am going to die, so of what use to me is this birthright?” Armed with Esau’s frivolous response, Jacob asked that Esau swear to it. In the Torah’s verbiage — “Vayeevez” — Esau spurned his birthright.
· Accepting, as we do, that Esau did indeed eschew the birthright — that he was a man unwilling to accept the “responsibility” that a birthright represented — is it not too easy to find Esau the only villain in this story? Otherwise put, didn’t Jacob, too, behave poorly?
· Didn’t Jacob, as a revered Patriarch, have the coordinate “responsibility” to explain to his brother that “the birthright” was far too important to so cavalierly relinquish for a simple bowl of lentil soup?
· Why didn’t a patriarch – indeed, the grandson of a man known for his exquisite graciousness even to strangers — simply “insist” on serving his famished brother a bowl of soup, rather than extort from him, as it were, the “birthright” inheritance from their father in exchange for it?
Rabbi Adam Mintz
As the stories of our forefathers are read and reread every year, in many ways the story of Jacob is the most troubling. The rabbis, following their general inclination to view the figures in the Bible as being either totally good or totally bad, view Jacob in a completely positive light. They do not even consider the fact that Jacob might have acted differently in his handling of the purchase of the birthright. However, to the twenty-first century mind, this story raises the issues that have been presented and require an answer that addresses the sensibilities of our times while attempting to imagine the complexities of the situation in Ancient Israel over 3,400 years ago.
So what should Jacob have done—his brother comes home after a long day in the field exhausted and hungry. We might look for a brother to offer the soup to his sibling with graciousness and appreciation for the hard day that he had just experienced. Did Jacob even consider such a response—we will never know. What we do know is that his reaction was to barter the soup for the birthright—the highest payment in history for a bowl of red lentil soup.
I think the rationale that Jacob used in justifying his action can be found in the manner in which the Torah presents the story. It is a clear case of barter with no emotion expressed by either party. Esav comes home hungry from the field and asks for soup. Jacob responds that he will give him soup in exchange for the birthright. Jacob asks Esav to swear to the deal and then he gives him the soup which Esav immediately devours. A direct story with little feeling and no ambivalence on the part of either one of the participants.
Yet, there are two verses that provide some vital information about Esav. In verse 32, Esav says, “Look I am going to die, so of what use is the birthright to me.” This is an odd response on Esav’s part. We know that in ancient times the birthright gave rights not only to the first born but also to his descendants. Furthermore, in the Book of Breishit, the birthright is the ticket to continuing the family line that would evolve into the Jewish nation that would receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Of what relevance is the fact that Esav is about to die?
I believe that the explanation, at least in Jacob’s eyes, as to why he was justified in insisting on the sale of the birthright in exchange for the soup, is explained in Esav’s reaction. The Torah is telling us that Esav did not appreciate the value and importance of the birthright. If this is so, one might argue, that Jacob was not only justified in insisting that he and not Esav carry the birthright, he had a moral responsibility to strip Esav of this birthright. The birthright as experienced by Jacob’s father Isaac carried with it responsibilities and acceptances of challenges that Esav was clearly unwilling to accept. Jacob was the proper heir to this birthright and therefore was justified, in the eyes of the Torah, in arranging for its sale.
Esav’s personality is once again highlighted after he purchases the lentil soup in what is one of the most dramatic verses in the Torah. Verse 34 reads “And, Jacob gave Esav bread and lentil soup and he ate and drank, got up and left; thus, Esav spurned the birthright.” Here too there is no emotion, no hesitation expressed on the part of Esav. He has just given away the right to follow his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham and we are presented with a string of verbs describing Esav’s thoughtless devouring of the soup and his exit to relax one on the ancient version of an easy chair in the den. The Torah expresses Esav’s actions in this string of verbs to teach us that the continuity of the Jewish people must be given to someone who understands that there is more to life than satisfying one’s hunger and then going to relax. The forefathers required a sense of commitment and purpose, recognition that life involved challenges as well as opportunities. Esav was not the man. Jacob had purchased the birthright from his undeserving brother. His challenge to prove that he was the rightful heir to the birthright is the story that encompasses the remainder of the Book of Breishit.
We read how one day, when Esau returns from the hunt, exhausted and starving, he finds Jacob cooking a pot of lentils. Esau wants the beans; Jacob offers to give him the stew in return for Esau’s birthright. As the first-born twin, Esau would have been the one chosen to minister in G-d’s temple. Esau accepts the offer and the deal is done.
Two hundred and seventy five years pass and in the Book of Exodus (4:22), G-d is sending Moses to Pharaoh to redeem His people. He describes them as B’ni bechori Yisrael — “My son, My first born, Israel.” Rashi, comments: “Here the Holy One Blessed is He affixed His seal to the sale of the birthright which Jacob purchased from Esau.”
Why does it take G-d so long to recognize the sale of the birthright?
A possible explanation may be, that while the transaction occurs in this weeks Torah portion, it is merely the contract. The closing occurs when G-d recognizes the sale in Exodus after all those long years. Indicative that
while it is easy to do the paperwork so to speak, the acceptance of the birthright comes with a responsibility, and after the Jewish people have proven themselves by enduring Egypt and nevertheless remaining true to the birthright and G-d. At that point G-d Affixes his sacred seal and we are called ” My Son, My Firstborn, Israel.”
The Kabbalah teaches that the story of Esau and Jacob is not just a tale of two brothers who fought with each other; Esau and Jacob — represent two conflicting forces in our lives. The drama unfolding between Jacob and Esau is a timeless tale continuously occurring in each of our hearts and lives. Their story is not only a physical one that occurred at a specific moment in history; it can also be seen as a mirror reflecting our lives.
The first soul (Esau) , is called the “animal soul.” This soul is the physical drive in life and it focuses on the self. Its every action, thought and word is motivated by the quest for self-gratification. The target of this soul is physical entitlement. The second soul (Jacob), or the “holy soul”, is defined as the spiritual soul. This soul cleaves to its divine source, constantly attempting to connect to spirituity. The target of this soul is spiritual enlightenment.
As they both use the same physical body as their vehicle for expression, there is a constant tug – of war: the struggle between selfishness and selflessness, between idealism and self-centeredness, between our animal impulses and our spiritual hopes.
This constant rivalry for dominance between Jacob and Esau, both physically and spiritually, in history and personally are the very fabric of our discussion. The lesson we learn is that Esau can renounce his birthright in a split second but to truly earn it takes dedication and persistance. While we are all G-d’s children if we persist G-d blesses us with the title of his first born son.
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