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. . . . 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." . . . 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?" . . . 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)
Some time ago, I read a newspaper piece in which a scientist theorized that one of the root causes of many of our current social ills is that most of us in the industrialized West don't get enough sleep. Between the lures of late-night television and Internet surfing, the pervasiveness of artificial lighting that undermines our natural bodily rhythms, and the need to work longer and longer hours, none of us is getting sufficient rest, leading to all sorts of antisocial, irrational and destructive behavior. I can't evaluate the scientific validity of that particular study, but I can certainly vouch for an all-too-frequent personal awareness of being bone tired in my daily life (which may have something to do with my being the father of a toddler). All of us know what it is to feel spent or drained at the end of a day in which (as someone I know says) "our interruptions were interrupted." Indeed, this may be one of the many emotional experiences that defines responsible adulthood. A stand-up comedian once theorized that the major difference between children and adults is that for children, going to bed is punishment, while for adults it is a blessed relief from the toil and responsibility of a workday. A parent I know whose infant wakes up crying many times a night put it this way, "How tired do you have to get before you die!"
We can therefore feel considerable sympathy for Esau when he allows Jacob to buy his firstborn privileges for a bowl of that famous "red stuff." The "man of the outdoors" entered Jacob's tent ayeif, "famished," according to the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation found in The Torah: A Modern Commentary (edited by W. Gunther Plaut [New York: UAHC Press, 1981], p. 174). An alternative translation is "exhausted" or, as in The Five Books of Moses, with introductions, notes, and commentary by Everett Fox (New York: Schocken, 1995, p. 117), "weary." The obvious p'shat, or plain-sense meaning, is that Esau had been out hunting all day long and came home from the hunt wiped out, drained, and hungry. Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, the new Conservative Movement Torah commentary (ed. David L. Lieber [Philadelphia: JPS, 2001], p. 148), states that "the Hebrew word ayef, traditionally rendered 'faint,' actually means to be in desperate need of food and drink."
Yet, upon reading the text more closely, one cannot help but feel that Esau's exhaustion went beyond tired, aching limbs, an empty belly, and sore feet. Indeed, even in English, the word "weary" can mean "disillusioned." And a hint that Esau's weariness may have extended into the realm of mind and spirit is found in his peevish reply to Jacob's offer of lentil stew in exchange for Esau's b'chorah, his firstborn rights: "I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?" Is Esau really such an oafish man that he has no idea what the birthright means? Is he oblivious to the insult, manipulation, and contempt inherent in Jacob's offer? Is he so worn down by the world, is his judgment so clouded, that he can say, "Man, I feel like death warmed over! Birthright, schmirthright, who cares anymore? Sure, take it!"
Years ago, I was given a humorous T-shirt as a gift, decorated down the chest with four words: "Sure. Uh-huh. Fine. Whatever." The design is meant to elicit a smile, but the state of mind encapsulated in those four expressions has a terribly serious side. How often by the end of the day do we feel as if life has beaten the caring out of us? Do we not, at times, find ourselves ayeif: weary, sick of ourselves, and incapable of bringing personal commitment, moral sensitivity, and caring to our troubled world-even to those who are closest to us? And, how often, following the thrill of personal achievement or of material acquisition, do we feel emptiness in the pit of our stomach that calls to mind the opening sentiment of the Book of Ecclesiastes: "Utter futility!-said Koheleth-Utter futility! All is futile! What real value is there for a man in all the gains he makes beneath the sun?" (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3). The spoils of the hunt may fill the stomach, but they cannot fill the soul.
There is much in Jewish life that seeks to guard us against this kind of soul -weariness, including the recitation of blessings of gratitude throughout the day, the emphasis on individual responsibility within a community, and the self-examination that results from personal prayer. And there is the great institution of Shabbat, a day when we remind ourselves, in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel (The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man [New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975], p. 3), that "to have more [and, we might add, to achieve more] is not to be more!" Shabbat Shalom.
By the Way
- Esau came tired from all his accomplishments and all his conquests. He was exhausted and disappointed. This is just like modern man, who, with all his progress, his innovations and his inventions, is still full of internal doubt, tortured by disappointment, bothered by anxiety, fearing death. (Joseph D. Soloveitchik, quoted in Torah Gems, vol. 1, comp. Aharon Yaakov Greenberg [Tel Aviv: Y. Orenstein, "Yavneh" Publishing House, 1998], pp. 204-5)
- Some people, contemplating their mortality, are moved to live their lives thoughtfully, to invest their energies in things that truly matter. Others, like Esau, say, "Why need I worry about mortality and religion since I will die soon, anyway?" (The Hafetz Hayyim, cited in Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary [Philadelphia: JPS, 2001], p. 149)
- [Rashi's commentary:] And he [Esau] was faint through murdering people just as you mention faintness in connection with murder, (Jer. IV. 31) "For my soul fainteth before the murderers" (B. Bath. 16b). (Pentateuch with Targum Onkelos, Haphtaroth and Rashi's Commentary [Jerusalem: The Silbermann Family, 1973], p. 116)
- What does Rabbi Soloveitchik (one of the great leaders of twentieth-century modern Orthodoxy) add to our understanding of the text? Do you agree that modern life is more alienating than life experienced by prior generations?
- The Hafetz Hayyim suggests that the contemplation of death should help us to get our priorities in order. How is his assertion consistent with the liturgy of the High Holy Days? What strategies does our "inner Esau" use to try to avoid thinking about death? How might Esau be a symbol for "midlife crisis"?
- Why do the Sages (cited by Rashi) go out of their way to paint Esau in such a negative light? (Hint: Rabbinic tradition saw Esau, also known as Edom, as the precursor of the Roman empire.)
Rabbi Steven Folberg is the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, Austin, Texas.