I’ve been keenly interested in the the story of Yaakov and Esav ever since the TV show LOST introduced its mysterious deity-like figure Jacob and his unnamed evil brother.
The brothers had much in common with their biblical counter parts, but other than a wrathful smoke-monster, I now find the biblical story much more interesting.
A Quick Glance
In Parshas Toldos, Yitchak and Rivka’s twin sons are born. Esav first followed by Yaakov holding onto his heel. Esav liked to hunt, Yaakov liked to sit and learn Torah. One day Esav comes in from the field and he’s super hungry. Yaakov is cooking some lentils and Esav is like, “Give me some of that red stuff!” and Yaakov is like, “Sure, for your birthright.” The seemingly unbalanced deal goes through. Years later when Yitchak is about to die, he plans to give Esav a blessing. Rivka won’t have any of that. She has Yaakov dress up as Esav and proceed to trick Yitchak into giving the younger son the blessing. The plan goes off without a hitch and Esav is left with an inferior blessing and a mission to murder his brother.
From this, we learn that making unfair business deals and deception is the Biblically approved way to get what you want. Wow. Short blog post this week. Let’s just check the Rashi to make sure I’m not missing anything…
A Bad Deal.
Okay so we’re not done yet. I’m not going to go into depth on all of the above. But let’s look at this lentils/birthright deal.
Now Jacob cooked a pottage, and Esau came from the field, and he was faint. And Esau said to Jacob, “Pour into [me] some of this red [pottage], for I am exhausted”… Jacob said, “Sell me as of this day your birthright.” Esau replied, “Behold, I am going to die; so why do I need this birthright?” And Jacob said, “Swear to me as of this day”; so he swore to him, and he sold his birthright to Jacob. And Jacob gave Esau bread and a pottage of lentils, and he ate and drank and arose and left, and Esau despised the birthright. Bereishis 25:29
A surface reading would lead one to think that Esav is so hungry that he is going to die and rather than feeding his hungry brother, Yaakov capitalizes on the opportunity. But two things stick out. It seems unlikely that Esav was so hungry he was literally about to die. Otherwise he certainly wouldn’t have been working in the field. The other is “and Esav despised the birthright.” Why would someone despise their birthright?
Well, what does this birthright even mean? Rashi says that the birthright of the firstborn included sacrifices for the service to God. When Esav asked about what these duties entailed, Yaakov gave him the ins and outs of all the laws, specifics, and prohibitions. If you’ve ever read the later parts of the Torah, you’ll know the laws on sacrifice are complicated, dry, and seemingly endless. And on top of that, the penalty of messing them up can be the death. It’s in reaction to that that Esav replied “Behold, I am going to die; so why do I need this birthright?” He wanted the glory but not the responsibility.
What was Yitchak thinking?
If Esav was such a bad guy, why did Yitchak want to give him the blessing? It’s one thing for someone to make a mistake, but this is Yitchak we’re talking about! The greatest man living at the time!
The Torah Or says that Yitchak clearly saw that Esav had fallen to temptation of evil ways. He believed that blessing him would hopefully bring Esav back to the fold. But it wouldn’t have worked and Rivka saw that. So what does one do when the people we look up to make a mistake. It can be both disillusioning and sobering. We can either come away with one of two reactions.
1) Maybe this person isn’t so great.
2) Maybe it’s not so bad to make the mistake.
Noach Weinberg gives an excellent insight on this. Neither reactions is the way to think. What the Torah is teaching us is simply that greatness can make a mistake. What we have to be aware of is that when one gets to greatness, there are mistakes that come though. Misjudgments. It is a problem for the people we follow and believe in. It doesn’t have to mean we abandon the mentor or that we can accept the mistake as permissible. Instead it means we learn the lessons that are valuable and try to fix their mistakes the best we can.