When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man, who stayed in camp. Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game; but Rebekah favored Jacob. Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. And Esau said to Jacob, "Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished"—which is why he is named Edom. Jacob said, "First sell me your birthright." And Esau said, "I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?" But Jacob said, "Swear to me first." So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; and he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright. (Genesis 25:27-34)
They lined up for ten blocks. That's what the newspapers said. People were lined up for ten blocks for a chance to see "Esther" (you remember her, she used to be called Madonna) as she arrived at her hotel in Israel. She is a superstar and a hero, beloved by her fans. But is she a Jewish role model?
There are many problematic issues associated with the popularization of Kabbalah study. Chief among them is the apparent simplicity it offers. Live in the moment, wear a red band around your wrist, and all will be right with the world. Too often, living "in" the moment has become living "for" the moment.
Yet, Torah admonishes us not to live exclusively for the moment lest we forget that tomorrow will bring new challenges and new blessings. The Torah portion Toldot highlights the struggle between this instant and the thousands of tomorrows that follow. How much should we focus on our immediate circumstances? Maslow's hierarchy of needs tells us that we cannot focus on tomorrow when today we lack the basics of food and shelter (Abraham Harold Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being [Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 1998]). On the other hand, to become immersed in only the present is to ignore the possible and suppress the potential of each new day.
By looking at the story of Jacob and Esau, we can learn to seek a balance between our desires of the moment and our obligations to the future. Esau is an accomplished outdoorsman; his brother, Jacob, is the quiet and contemplative one. Following a long day in the field, Esau returns home. Many translate the word ayeif as "tired" or "exhausted," not "famished." So he returns from the field tired. As he approaches his home, he finds Jacob cooking a "red" stew. Able to identify the food only as "red," he asks that it be given to him. Jacob asks for his birthright blessing in return. Esau agrees, saying he has no use for it, as he is about to die.
Several questions immediately arise, and each answer helps resolve the questions that follow. Why is Esau so interested in food if he is so very tired? The text never really tells us that Esau is "famished." Rather, the Hebrew asserts that he is worn-out, he is tired. Tired of what—his work in the field? Rashi and other commentators observe that Esau spends time considering his birthright blessing (Rashi on Genesis 25:32). It is not simply an inheritance. What is the birthright blessing? Ibn Ezra notes that it entitles Esau to a double share of his father's estate. But the birthright blessing also represents an obligation to the future-an opportunity to share in the creation of a legacy for subsequent generations and a commitment to the Jewish people and Jewish life.
Certainly there were benefits associated with the birthright, but there were also responsibilities. From Rashi we learn that Esau's exhaustion is more spiritual than physical. He is tired of the obligations of family life, tired of the responsibilities associated with Jewish living, and weary of the limitations placed on him daily by his pledge to the future. Would it not be easier simply to ignore tomorrow and live only for today? And so, with the stew as collateral, Esau abandons his future. More than opting out of his birthright, Esau ridicules it by trading it for a simple bowl of stew.
Esau is tired of living up to potential and tired of being concerned with others and with the future. He wants to live only in and for a particular moment, deciding thus to trade his heritage for a bowl of "red stuff." While the lentil stew Jacob makes may be intended for his family, to be eaten upon suffering the forthcoming loss of his father, it also represents the spiritual demise of Esau. But the birthright blessing does not work that way for us. Each of us carries this blessing—the blessing ultimately given to Jacob—as our inheritance. Unlike Esau, we are not free to squander it recklessly. Rather, it is our task, our daily struggle, to uphold our inheritance and through Jewish living, to navigate and balance our desire to live for the moment with our sacred responsibility to others and to a better future.
Everyday life is hard for people. All too often we return from our labors drained by the mundane and work-a-day demands placed upon us. The news is filled with people who are too tired to care for their children, too tired to attend to the needs of others, too tired to give of their time and resources for worthy causes, and too tired to care about what comes next.
Our birthright blessing insists not only that we care, but also that we act. A quick fix of Kabbalah is not the answer. It is only through Jewish living, learning, and action that we can continually earn our inheritance and redeem ourselves from the spiritual exhaustion that so often afflicts us.
By the Way
- Jacob said, "First sell me your birthright." Because you are completely occupied with hunting and other activities in a manner that causes you to be so weary that you can't even name the lentil stew. Therefore, you will not be able to occupy yourself with the obligations of the birthright including serving God. (Sforno, on Genesis 25:31)
- Perhaps this scenario is a bit too precious, too late-nineties, too much Manhattan's Upper West Side. The point's the same in any case, the chasm between brothers' cultures is virtually unbridgeable. Whatever the distinction between hunting in the fields and dwelling among the tents, Jacob pretends to a refinement that Esau is not only lacking, but does not even notice. . . .
This crudeness must serve as a goad to wily Jacob. How can this boor, he thinks, have any clue what primogeniture means? He probably cannot even spell it. What will Esau do with all that capital, invest it in net traps? Jacob would invest it in the right portfolio, perhaps with a somewhat aggressive ratio leaning to high-tech stocks. In a slightly earlier era he'd use the double portion of the birthright for risk arbitrage or floating junk bonds. Clearly, Jacob deserved the bulk of their father's estate, not this lug, no matter whom Father favored. (Burton L. Visotsky, The Genesis of Ethics [New York: Crown Publishing Group, 1997], p. 138)
- The righteous eat to the satisfying of his desire (Prov. 13:25). Such was Eliezer the servant of Abraham who said to our mother Rebekah: "Give me to drink, I pray thee, a little water of thy pitcher" (Gen. 24:17)—one drink satisfied him. But the belly of the wicked shall want (Prov. 13:25). Such was the wicked Esau who said to our father Jacob: "Stuff me, I pray thee, with this red, red pottage" (Gen. 25:30). R. Isaac bar R. Ze'era explained: This wicked man opened his mouth wide as though he were a camel and said, "I have my mouth open, keep putting food into it." The words "stuff me" are associated with the feeding of a camel, as we read in a mishnah: "On the Sabbath you must not make a manger of the camel's stomach, nor push food into his gullet, but you may stuff it into his mouth" (Mishnah Shabbat 24:3). (P'sikta D'Rav Kahana 6:2)
- Rabbi Dovid Bliacher, z.l., explains the contrast between one "who dwells in the tent" and one who is "a man of the field" in the following manner. These two descriptions suggest polarized life orientations. The yosheiv ohalim is one who maintains a disciplined lifestyle, living within a framework of predetermined restrictions. His theological consciousness and philosophical speculation is limited to his level of understanding. He is acutely aware of his inability to gain insight into matters which are beyond his sphere of comprehension. His faith and trust carry him through moments of ambiguity. He does not sense that his intellectual capacity is "stunted" by the limits on thought and activity. He realizes that man must live in the confines of discipline. . . .
In contrast to this orientation is the ish sadeh, the free thinking individual who does not live within the framework of Divine restriction and obedience. (A. L. Scheinbaum, Peninim on the Torah [Cleveland Heights: Peninim Publications, 1996], p. 35)
- What is it about service to God that requires so much energy and attention? Is not faith sufficient?
- In the modern context given above, how might Esau better use the money to earn the birthright? How might that apply to the way we think about and use money?
- Why is sating oneself so easily associated with the behavior of the wicked?
- How can we balance self-discipline and free thinking to better cope with ambiguity and discontent in our lives?
Rabbi Elliott A. Kleinman is the Chief Engagement Officer at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.
Tol'dot, Genesis 25:19–28:9
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 173–189; Revised Edition, pp. 172–189;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 133–156