November 20, 2020
There are things in life we all take for granted: the roof over our head; food on the table; the privilege of participating in our political process—we as the Jewish people have inherited great blessings, but with that inheritance comes great responsibility. This week’s portion, Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9), we can examine the notion of a birthright and an inherited responsibility.
In the portion Esau, as the firstborn, would traditionally receive the birthright from his father Isaac, but the Torah explains that Esau took it for granted. His disdain becomes apparent when he trades this great inheritance for a mere bowl of lentil soup that Jacob is preparing.
As Jews, we all inherit a birthright—a responsibility to better the world we live in. As the stories of our ancestors are read and reread every year, in many ways the story of Jacob is the most troubling. The rabbis, following their general inclination to view the figures in the Torah as being either totally good or totally bad, view Jacob in a completely positive light. They do not even consider the fact that Jacob might have acted differently in his handling of the purchase of the birthright. However, to the twenty-first century mind, this story raises the issues that have been presented and require an answer that addresses the sensibilities of our times while attempting to imagine the complexities of the situation in Ancient Israel over 3,400 years ago.
So what should Jacob have done—his brother comes home after a long day in the field exhausted and hungry. We might look for a brother to offer the soup to his sibling with graciousness and appreciation for the hard day that he had just experienced. Did Jacob even consider such a response—we will never know. What we do know is that his reaction was to barter the soup for the birthright—the highest payment in history for a bowl of red lentil soup.
I think the rationale that Jacob used in justifying his action can be found in the manner in which the Torah presents the story. It is a clear case of barter with no emotion expressed by either party. Esau comes home hungry from the field and asks for soup. Jacob responds that he will give him soup in exchange for the birthright. Jacob asks Esau to swear to the deal and then he gives him the soup which Esau immediately devours. A direct story with little feeling and no ambivalence on the part of either one of the participants.
Yet, there are two verses that provide some vital information about Esau. In verse 32, Esau says, “Look I am going to die, so of what use is the birthright to me.” This is an odd response on Esau’s part. We know that in ancient times the birthright gave rights not only to the first born but also to his descendants. Furthermore, in Genesis, the birthright is the ticket to continuing the family line that would evolve into the Jewish nation that would receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Of what relevance is the fact that Esau is about to die?
I believe that the explanation, at least in Jacob’s eyes, as to why he was justified in insisting on the sale of the birthright in exchange for the soup, is explained in Esau’s reaction. The Torah is telling us that Esau did not appreciate the value and importance of the birthright. If this is so, one might argue, that Jacob was not only justified in insisting that he and not Esau carry the birthright, he had a moral responsibility to strip Esau of this birthright. The birthright as experienced by Jacob’s father Isaac carried with it responsibilities and acceptances of challenges that Esau was clearly unwilling to accept. Jacob was the proper heir to this birthright and therefore was justified, in the eyes of the Torah, in arranging for its sale.
Esau’s personality is once again highlighted after he purchases the lentil soup in what is one of the most dramatic verses in the Torah. Verse 34 reads “And, Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil soup and he ate and drank, got up and left; thus, Esau spurned the birthright.” Here too there is no emotion, no hesitation expressed on the part of Esau. He has just given away the right to follow his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham and we are presented with a string of verbs describing Esau’s thoughtless devouring of the soup and his exit to relax one on the ancient version of an easy chair in the den. The Torah expresses Esau’s actions in this string of verbs to teach us that the continuity of the Jewish people must be given to someone who understands that there is more to life than satisfying one’s hunger and then going to relax. The ancestors required a sense of commitment and purpose, recognition that life involved challenges as well as opportunities. Esau was not the man. Jacob had purchased the birthright from his undeserving brother. His challenge to prove that he was the rightful heir to the birthright is the story that encompasses the remainder of the Book of Genesis. May each of us be worthy of this sacred inheritance.