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Parshat Toldot 2017
Once upon a time there were twins who could not get along. One was a hunter, the other a tent-dweller or perhaps a shepherd. One put his life on the line every day and the other was in danger only of an overturned pot. They were day and night, fire and water, but not black and white. They were different, but not absolutes. The story of their falling out is told in two parts, one at the beginning of the parsha, the other towards the end.
The subject is the birthright and what goes with it.
Esau has it, Yaacov wants it. Esau sells it, Yaacov buys it. But when it comes to cashing it in for the patriarchal blessing that is one of its perks, suddenly Esau wants it back. Two questions arise here: 1. What changed Esau’s mind and 2. Is it even possible to sell a birthright? Isn’t it a matter of: you were born first so you get the benefits of the birthright?
Let’s take the second question first. Can you sell a birthright? According to the book of Devarim no. And technically, you can’t change who was born first, but the question really is what does the birthright represent and why is it given? (Notice, trying to give an answer only raises more questions!)
The birthright and its benefits, such as double the inheritance, are given to the firstborn not because he was created from daddy’s biggest and strongest sperm. It’s much more prosaic than that. The firstborn had extra duties, chores and obligations. The expectations from him were greater.
You’ve seen families with lots of kids. By the time number 6 or 7 pops out number 1 is old enough to help out and he or she does just that. How else could families with 10 children get through the day? In olden times it was the firstborn who learned the skills from daddy because daddy needed help.
You have obligations and if you fulfill them, you deserve the birthright. And this is where theory intersects with story. What do we know about Esau? He was hairy, red, a hunter. He risked his life almost on a daily basis, and in his own words, he did not expect to live long.
Did he undertake responsibility at home? We don’t really know. He was out a lot. He may have brought home the meat but it was Rivka – and Yaacov – who prepared it.
This does not automatically disqualify him from deserving the birthright. After all, obligations run in all directions. But on the less practical and more abstract level of values, as Rabbanit Sharon Rimon points out, a person must be spiritually suited and worthy of the birthright because he is the one to carry on the father’s name, reputation and beliefs. He has to invest effort and he has to earn the birthright.
This is where Esau comes up short. That does not mean he was a bad person, just not necessarily deserving of the birthright from Yitzhak.
Actually, we see quite often in the Torah that the firstborn is not really the most prominent of a person’s children. Take Reuven. He was the first of Yaacov’s 12 children but the real leader was Yehuda, number four. Ephraim was Yosef’s younger child but he got the blessing from Yaacov instead of Menashe. Aharon was three years older than Moshe but Moshe was God’s chosen leader.
Esau, like Ishmael before him, does not really fit the mold of the responsible son of Avraham’s family. Hunting is a dangerous way of making a living. As the narrator in the movie The Big Lebowsky said, “Sometimes you eat the bar, and sometimes the bar eats you.” This also affects one’s belief in God. As Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sachs points out, a hunter is in and a part of nature. That’s what he believes in, not necessarily the God who made that nature.
Now that we have seen that a birthright can change hands under certain circumstances, let’s turn to the second question – what changed Esau’s mind about the birthright at the end of the story?
We have two possible answers. The utilitarian reason is that he realized he might get more out of life with his father’s blessing and it was therefore a good thing to have, like a charm. The second reason is that he had matured. He saw that he wasn’t dead yet and there was a good chance he’d actually live to a decent age. And he wanted to take some responsibility.
This brings into question Yaacov’s behavior. He took advantage of Esau at the beginning and he tricked his father at the end. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin quotes Rashi who says that Yaacov was meant to receive the blessing. It was SO meant to be (Rashi says) that Yitzhak’s blindness was actually a deus ex machina trick to enable Yaacov to pull off his caper. Yaacov would never have gotten away with it if Yitzhak still had his sight. Bashert. That explanation opens a much larger can of worms, one that we cannot delve into today.
What we can learn from the story is that working as hard as we can to get something we really want may sometimes pan out and leave us with our desired object. As one of the characters explained in the novel Shogun, if you have done the utmost to ensure the results you want, then the rest is (she says Karma – we can say) in heaven’s hands.
That also means you should be very sure of what you want and wish for. There’s little as upsetting as getting what you thought you wanted and finding you don’t want it at all.
May we desire the right things and obtain them, and may we be happy with what we desired so much.