This week’s Torah portion is Toldot (Genesis 25:19 – 28:9), and it opens with a genealogical recording of Abraham’s family. One of the central features of this week’s reading is the struggle – the eternal struggle – between Jacob and Esau.
In this case, it was the struggle over the birthright and who would become the next leader of the Jewish people. As we will see, however, ownership of the birthright really wasn’t much of a struggle – more of a culinary experience. So, too, we will see how one of the greatest lessons in decision-making can be learned from the wicked Esau.
The birthright – with its accompanying honors, responsibilities and obligations – is usually awarded to the firstborn, of course. It is occasionally sold to a sibling, although for a price.
Esau was born first, and the birthright was essentially his, along with the potential to become the next leader of the Jewish people. The reality, however, was that Esau didn’t care much about the birthright, nor did he care about anything Jewish or spiritual for that matter. Jacob, on the other hand, desired the birthright with all his heart.
One day Jacob saw an opportunity to acquire the birthright. Esau returned home after an exhausting day of hunting. (Ever notice how throughout Scripture, the only people associated with hunting were unsavory characters?) Esau was very hungry – so hungry, in fact, that he didn’t even have the strength to feed himself, let alone to prepare his own supper. Meanwhile, Jacob was in the kitchen and had been cooking up a stew. Esau wanted some of the stew, and Jacob was ready to oblige – on condition that Esau sell him his birthright. A deal was sealed, and both were content with the agreement.
The question is asked whether Esau was essentially forced, under duress, to give up his birthright. One could suggest that he had no choice but to sell the birthright; he was starving, and perhaps Jacob had taken advantage of the situation. Nevertheless, these assumptions are simply false. As the Torah states, “He ate, he drank, he walked away and he despised the birthright.”
Note how even after Esau’s hunger was satisfied, he had no regrets about the deal, as the Torah tells us. Indeed, not only did he not regret giving away the birthright; he “despised” it.
Esau was truly willing to give away a life of spirituality and spiritual responsibility for a bowl of stew. He had no appreciation for what it meant to be a son of Isaac and a grandson of Abraham, the patriarch of many nations. Jacob, on the other hand, had a sensitivity and magnetic draw towards anything holy.
The lesson is clear. Making mistakes is human, but one needs the clarity to focus on what is truly important and meaningful in life. The battle of the birthright was a battle between the spiritual and the physical, between the holy and the profane, between light and darkness.
Indeed, the struggle between Jacob and Esau is an eternal within each of us, nearly every minute of every day. Our birthright, the legacy of the the Torah, dictates that we must focus our efforts on becoming holy, and a true source of light unto the nations.
Shabbat Shalom from Israel!
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel