Commentary for Toldot

16 Nov

In this week’s parshah, Jacob buys the birthright of the firstborn from his brother Esau. This incident (recorded in Gen. 25: 29-34) has received a fair amount of attention from modern readers, as Jacob’s actions here can come off as morally dubious, and the actions of Jacob and Rebecca in Genesis 27 to enforce the terms of the deal to be deceitful, but the text of the Torah itself is quite insistent that Esau was not worthy of the birthright in the first place, going so far as to flat out tell us that Esau “spurned the birthright (Gen 29:34).”

Esau comes home from a day of hunting and comes across Jacob sitting and cooking. Esau tells his brother “Pour for me now some of that red stuff you have there. I’m exhausted.”

Jacob responds “if you sell me your birthright.” Esau’s reply, “Look, I am going to die. What use to me is a birthright?” can be taken one of two ways. The first is that it was simple hyperbole. He was very hungry, but certainly not on the verge of death, and if he was on the verge of death, he could have easily asked a servant to fetch him some food from the family stockpile (the founding family was quite wealthy; if they weren’t then Jacob would been out working in the fields, either hunting with his brother or tending to flocks or crops, rather than sitting inside studying all day). Following this interpretation, Jacobs does seem guilty of trying to take advantage of a hungry man, although some blame does lie with Esau for accepting Jacob’s deal when he could have easily gotten food another way.

The second way to interpret Esau’s statement is more philosophical. “Look, I am going to die [at some point, but not right now]. What use to me is a birthright [that is just this spiritual mumbo-jumbo. Right now I am hungry but it won’t help get me food. Maybe it will help me in the afterlife, but it won’t help me right now.] In either case, Esau is only concerned with what he wants right at this moment. He sees something and wants it right away and has no problem throwing away something that will be a lot more valuable in the future in order to get it.

They agree to the trade, and the Torah concludes the story with an interesting phrase: “va-yochal va-yeisht va-yakom va-yeilach vayivez Esav et ha-bechorah- and he ate and he drank and he got up and he left and thus did Esau spurn the birthright (Gen. 25:34).” A long chain of verbs such as this is rare in the Torah, and usually connotes things happening in relatively quick succession. Interestingly, the cantillation indicates a slight pause between “and he left” and “and thus did [Esau] spurn,” with a cantillation mark that can only appear once per verse, and which is used to divide verses into separate thoughts. This teaches us that spurning the birthright was not one particular deed that Esau did after he was finished eating, but rather it was a result of the combined whole of his actions. Esau got the food he wanted from Jacob in exchange for the birthright and he gobbled up the food and he got up and he walked away and he never once thought about it again. He never, at any point down the road, stopped to consider the results of this trade. Even if we subscribe to the idea that Esau was so hungry when he made the trade that he wasn’t thinking straight, we learn that even after his hunger was sated he never once had a second thought about the trade he had made. Esau’s impulsive, hedonistic, “I want it now!” mentality and his inability or unwillingness to reflect on his past decisions are completely antithetical to what the Judaism teaches. Rather than basing our actions purely on our desires in the moment and shrugging our shoulders and saying “oh well” if things turn out poorly, Judaism asks us to base our decisions on what, in the long term, will be best for ourselves, for our community, and our relationship with God.

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