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TRIVIAL PURSUITS

by Mendel Starkman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

It was Friday afternoon, and two neighbors were preparing their homes for Shabbat. One house was noticeably more hectic than the other. In the first, children were being bathed, clothes were being ironed, the house being cleaned, and the wonderful smells of cholent and chicken soup emanated from the kitchen.

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It was Friday afternoon, and two neighbors were preparing their homes for Shabbat. One house was noticeably more hectic than the other. In the first, children were being bathed, clothes were being ironed, the house being cleaned, and the wonderful smells of cholent and chicken soup emanated from the kitchen. Shabbat was also approaching for the residents of the second house, but they felt that they still had ample time before Shabbat began, so there was no reason to hurry with preparations just yet. Shortly before sunset, as the first family was ready to leave their prepared home to go to synagogue, the second family was just waking up to the idea that it was very late. They hurried to prepare in the last few minutes, but they did not get very far. Later that evening, while the first family was enjoying the sumptuous dinner that they had prepared, the second family--who had not properly prepared--was left eating plain bread and cold foods. Only the first family would truly enjoy their Shabbat experience.

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, we read about the birth of our forefather Jacob and his brother Esau. Although they were twins, their characters were polar opposites. The Torah (Genesis 25:27) describes Esau as "a man who knew how to hunt, a man of the field," while Jacob was a wholesome man who dwelled in the Torah-enveloped tents of Shem and Ever.

Rabbeinu Bachya, a classic 13th century Torah commentator, explains that the fundamental difference between the twins’ characters was their perspective of priorities in life. Esau was a "man of the field," an earthly individual who personified the philosophy of eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you may die. He chased physical pleasures, making them the primary focus of his life, and placing his service of Hashem on a lesser level of significance. Jacob was just the opposite. For him, service of Hashem took utmost priority, and in accordance with that philosophy, he studied Torah all day.

These opposite philosophies manifested themselves in the famous sale of Esau’s birthright. Jacob was cooking a lentil stew and Esau had just returned from hunting, exhausted and demanding to be served some of the stew. Jacob agreed, in exchange for Esav’s birthright. Upon acceptance, Esau was given bread and stew. Esau then "ate and drank, got up and left," thereby scorning his birthright (Genesis 25:34).

To Esau, this sale was one of the smartest things he possibly could have done. The birthright involved spirituality, as its holder was entitled to perform certain spiritual activities (like the service in the holy Temple) for generations to come. To Esau, who always looked for immediate physical benefit, the birthright was absolutely worthless. In exchange, he could get a bowl of red lentil soup--something that had value. He had found a way to trade something worthless for something valuable, and felt that he was tricking Jacob by following through with the trade!

Jacob, on the other hand, valued the birthright for the spiritual gains that it offered, and felt that it was definitely worth foregoing some lentil soup for the those everlasting opportunities.

Rabbeinu Bachya points out that from the way the verses describing the sale are worded, one can appreciate how overconfident and silly Esau was being. When the Torah first introduces us to the scene, all we are told is that Jacob was making a stew, but it did not specify what kind of stew. When one then reads that Esau was willing to sell his birthright for it, one would assume that the stew must have been something really special. If a person would trade their birthright for a meal, they should expect a banquet fit for a king. But then the Torah specifies that Esau was only given bread and lentil soup. At this point, the reader appreciates what little significance Esau placed on his birthright, as he was willing to give up that spiritual possession for a simple, cheap meal of lentil soup.

The Steipler Gaon, a 20th century Torah giant, explains that although Esau felt this way at the time of the sale, his feelings later changed. He did grow up in Isaac’s house, so he must have had some degree of appreciation for the birthright. Thus, after his pleasure from the meal had subsided, he regretted what he had done, to the point where he felt that Jacob was actually the one who had fooled him! In order to receive a little immediate, physical pleasure in this world, Esau had traded spiritual opportunities that would have rewarded him with life in the World to Come. Later, he regretted this and cried "a great, bitter cry" in anguish.

The Steipler Gaon continues with a practical application of this idea. We always have spiritual opportunities of which we can take advantage. There are always opportunities to do mitzvot--by helping others, by giving charity, and by studying Torah, just to list a few. When we extend ourselves in the pursuit of physical or monetary gains, we are making a tradeoff. We are taking time that could be spent directly enhancing our lives in the World to Come, and we are instead using it to enhance our physical well beings. It is important to consider to what degree we are making such a tradeoff. Perhaps it is possible for us to squeeze a little more spirituality into our daily routines.

The verses in Psalms (Chapter 49) discuss this tradeoff and how people spend their time accumulating wealth, but not preparing themselves for the World to Come. One verse states that, "In their imagination, their houses are forever, their dwellings for generation after generation; they have proclaimed their names throughout the lands" (49:12).

The Sforno, a classic 16th century Torah commentator, explains that the human being is built with a natural desire for eternity. We are finite beings with a limited life span, and a person has a natural inclination to surpass it. Hashem gave us the tools to do so. We know very clearly that the World to Come is an eternal existence and that we achieve that eternity through our performance of Torah and mitzvot. However, this verse is telling us that the reason why some people do not follow Hashem’s prescribed method is because their desire for eternity misleads them. They feel that "their houses are forever"--that the fame from their buildings and their wealth is the way to receive eternal recognition. They want to build a tall skyscraper or have their name in lights, as they feel that they will then be remembered forever. Their desire to live eternally is the source for this feeling, but it is mislead. Instead of pursuing a life of Torah and mitzvot, which will truly give them an eternal existence, they instead pursue fame and fortune in a botched attempt to achieve the same eternity.

Our time is very valuable and very limited. With all the pressures and responsibilities that life throws upon us, it is easy to simply not have the time to follow our spiritual pursuits. We should not take this lightly. We must recognize our priorities and constantly check ourselves. Perhaps we really could be doing a little bit more.

In reference to the World to Come, the Talmud (Tractate Avodah Zarah 3a) allegorically states that only one who toils on Friday afternoon will have what to eat on Shabbat. This world is like one long Friday afternoon, a time and place for preparation. The next world is a place for tranquility, where we enjoy that which we have previously prepared. And like the Talmud asks: If someone does not prepare on Friday afternoon, what will he eat on Shabbat? We have so many opportunities to learn Torah and to perform mitzvot. This is our primary focus and this is the way to earn the eternity that we all naturally desire. May we learn to grab the opportunities that we have, and not squander them in a tradeoff for temporary, physical pleasures.

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Mendel Starkman, a native Atlantan, is studying at the Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in New York.

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