EAT, DRINK, AND BE MERRY
Rabbi Norman Schloss
The infamous sale of the birthright by Esau to Jacob is of great interest at the beginning of this week's Torah portion (Genesis 25:29-34). This remarkable exchange presents numerous questions.
The infamous sale of the birthright by Esau to Jacob is of great interest at the beginning of this week's Torah portion (Genesis 25:29-34). This remarkable exchange presents numerous questions. First of all, how could it have even entered Jacob's mind that he could buy the birthright for a simple bowl of soup - there was no equity between that which was sold by Jacob to that which was bought by Esau. Furthermore, how could Esau willingly accept what is so clearly a one-sided deal in favor of Jacob? Along the same lines, what does Esau mean by his justification that "I am going to die, so of what use to me is a birthright"? Finally, why doesn't Isaac come to Esau's defense and curse Jacob for "stealing" the blessings?
The Midrash relates that Abraham passed away earlier on that same day of the sale. Everyone was in mourning, including Isaac, Rebecca, and Jacob. Everyone whose life was touched by such a tremendous tzadik (righteous person) as Abraham, was awestruck by his death. Only Esau went about his everyday business. What was his business? That day he transgressed four fundamental commandments. He had forbidden relations, he worshipped idols, he murdered King Nimrod, and he scorned the idea of Olam Habah - the World to Come. In fact, the Midrash states that Abraham died five years prematurely (at age 175 instead of 180) so that he would not have to hear about these horrible acts committed by his grandson.
Esau returns from his hunt to find Jacob busily preparing the mourner's meal - a meal of adashim, lentils, which are round and symbolize that there is a tomorrow. Life goes on, in this world and most certainly in the next world. This is the legacy and message that Jacob learned from Abraham.
Esau, on the other hand, sees Jacob in mourning and can only see futility. Abraham the great tzadik, the favorite of Hashem, is dead? If even Abraham dies, claimed Esau, then there is no tomorrow - not in this world, and certainly not in the World to Come. So give me a bowl of the food now, for I am going to die. Esau epitomizes the philosophy of "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die." He, therefore, places no value on the birthright, and for him the most valuable item in the world at this moment is the simple bowl of lentils. Hearing of Abraham's death is a time of futility rather than a time for reflection.
Jacob, on the other hand, knows that life is fleeting and that one must grab, during every moment of life, those things that are of real value and that will be of some help and purpose in the World to Come. Jacob senses their differences in perspective, and offers Esau a bargain - a whole bowl of soup for a promise of tomorrow. Esau receives a piece of tangibility in this world for a pipe-dream in the World to Come. Esau truly believes that he got the better deal.
It is only later, when going for the blessings of Isaac, that Esau realizes what he has lost. Only then does he cry out bitterly, "I was tricked not once but twice." It is then that Esau realizes that the deal he got was no deal at all, but by that time it was too late. Isaac understands his son very well, and when he realizes the reason for Esau's outburst he also realizes that he passed the legacy of Abraham to its rightful heir - to Jacob, one who knows his place in this world and also knows the true value of the World to Come.
Rabbi Norman Schloss writes from Atlanta.
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