The story of the twins Esau and Jacob puts neither in a good light, but clearly delineates the cardinal sin of despising one’s heritage above all else
This week’s Torah portion is “Toldot”, literally, the “story”, the story of how Jacob got his Blessing from his father Isaac in equal parts through his (and his mother Rivkah’s) superior intelligence and guile and his brother’s stupidity, impulsiveness, and most importantly lack of appreciation for the heritage passed on to him by his forefathers. This is the story of how the Jewish people came to be in the world and as such it is vitally important to our world today, but its relevance goes far beyond that.
Picture this: Esau returns from the hunt, exhausted. A lentil stew is bubbling on the fire, his younger twin Jacob stirring it. “Give me some!” says Esau. “Yea, right,” says Jacob, “maybe you want to give me your right of primogeniture in return?” Now we must realize that primogeniture, especially in a wealthy clan like that of Isaac, was everything back then. It was like third generation tenure in Harvard law school, but so much more. Primogeniture carried with it the family name, the BLESSING with which God has endowed the family. As is explained later in the reading, this blessing could only reside with one individual at a time; it could not be shared, diluted, spread out.
It is safe to assume that Jacob did not think for a moment that his brother, who gained this incredible advantage by the fluke of emerging first from Rivkah’s womb, would be dumb enough to sell it for some food. After all, Esau was not, as he overly dramatically put it, “dying”. Esau was the firstborn of a wealthy family; surely he could have gone to the servants’ tent and got them to make him something to eat. But as it turned out, he was just dumb enough, impulsive enough, and reckless enough to trade his and his future progeny’s most precious possession for a bite to eat, not because there was nothing else available, but because he had to satisfy his immediate urge.
It is worth here to read the original Torah passage in Chabad’s prosaic translation made even more approachable be me (Genesis 25: 29-34): “Jacob was cooking a stew when Esau came home from the field tired from the hunt. And Esau said to Jacob: “Give me some of this stew, for I am dead tired.” “Sell me as of this day your birthright,” said Jacob. Esau replied: “I am going to die here, what good is this birthright to me now?” So Jacob said: “Swear this to me now”; and Esau swore to him and he sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and the stew of lentils, which he ate and drank and then he arose and left having betrayed his birthright.”
At this juncture we come to an interesting point, which is not discussed in the Torah recounting of this critical incident. Esau may not have thought much of the Blessing, but Jacob knew better. Jacob knew that he had just scored the biggest touch down of all times, hit the biggest walk-off grand slam. Shouldn’t he be running to his father Isaac, not only to brag, but to inform him that he, rather than his older brother Esau, was now the heir apparent to the family’s fortunes and to its divine Blessing? Reason dictates that that is exactly what he should have done, but later events make it clear that he did no such thing.
Why? Why didn’t Jacob run to his father to cement the deal that he had just made and immediately begin to benefit from it? There can only be one reason: Jacob knew that Isaac, who loved Esau for all the yummy game he provided for him would simply laugh at this “deal” and annul it on the spot. Remember, at this time Isaac was still relatively young an vigorous, in full control of the family business. We can just hear him saying something like: “Are you crazy, Jacob? He sold you his primogeniture for some lentils? It’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. Now go and speak of it no more.”
What we do know, however, is that Jacob told the story to his mother, seeing as he was her favorite over Esau. We know this because when Isaac, now on his deathbed, made ready to pass on his Blessing to Esau, Rivkah got wind of it (doubtlessly from one of the maids) and made sure that Jacob had a plan to fool Isaac into abiding by the deal he had made with his brother all these years ago, even if unwittingly .
The story of how the Blessing left Esau and ended up with Jacob is challenging on many levels. First, Jacob took advantage of Esau’s careless nature, making him swear to something that he most assuredly thought was silly and non-binding. We know this because Esau, when advised by his father that the Blessing would soon officially be his, did not say, “wait a minute, we may have a problem because I swore to Jacob that I would renounce it.”
Not content with obtaining the blessing as if in jest, Jacob then failed to inform his father, the head of the family, as it was certainly his duty to do so, because he knew that Isaac would simply laugh it off. Finally, Isaac had to resort to an actual act of subterfuge, one could say fraud, perpetrated against an impaired and dying man, his own father no less, causing him to act against his own express wishes.
Oceans of commentaries were written by our Sages on this issue seeing as Jacob, later Israel, is literally the guy after whom we are all named. Yet we know that they were disturbed by the moral and ethical implications of this story, not only by the volumes of ink spilled to explain it away, but also by the Haftarah, the post-scriptum they had chosen for the Toldot Torah portion.
This passage, Malachi 1:1 through Malachi 2:7, explicitly mentions Esau, also known as Edom, as someone who is hated by the Lord for betraying his Blessing, and as such as someone whose progeny would always be laid waste by the Lord’s wrath. But the prophet Malachi, prophesying to the court of the northern kingdom of Israel soon doomed to conquest and exile by Assyria, doesn’t stop there. He goes on to explain, in plain terms, how God cannot be cheated, how selecting for sacrifice the sick and lame animals, ones that would in any case be culled from the herd rather than the choice and most precious animals, is worse than sacrificing nothing at all.
From Malachi 2:8-9: “When you offer a blind animal for sacrifice, is there nothing wrong? And when you offer a lame or a sick one, is that acceptable? Were you to offer it to your governor, would he accept it? Would he favor you? And now you pray before the Lord that He be gracious to us? This has come from your hand. Will He favor any of you?”
In a sense, the prophet Malachi says: “Do not be like our Patriarch Jacob. Do not be cheaters, because God will not be cheated.” The Sages thought it a good idea to read this passage at the end of Toldot to clear any doubt from the people’s minds about what constitutes moral and immoral behavior.
But what about Esau? Has he behaved with the responsibility and the decorum of someone who is worthy of the divine Blessing? Hardly so. He behaved like most Westerners are behaving nowadays, selling their family heritage, the incredible Blessing painstakingly collected by their forefathers through enormous sacrifice for the proverbial “mess of pottage”, a mere stew of red lentils.
What is the Western heritage that is now being sold down the river? It is a heritage of individual responsibility, of acting as adults within a well-defined moral framework whose origins are divine rather than human. It is a heritage of accepting obligations that come with adulthood, the obligations to start and raise a family, to imbue the next generation with the precious knowledge and wisdom of generations that have gone before. It is a heritage of taking care first and foremost of one’s own family, community, and nation, with the force of arms, if necessary. It is a heritage of clear sight, of level headedness, of scientific inquiry. A heritage of rejecting emotions in favor of experimentation and scientific analysis, of telling the truth even when truth is unpopular.
Today, like Esau all these millennia ago, the West and its inhabitants have sold their heritage and the Blessing that came with it for nothing at all. For social security and disability insurance and other minor and fleeting benefits that the false idol of a totalitarian globalist government is willing (for now) to bestow upon them. One of the Democrat presidential candidates, Andrew Yang is proposing to buy the priceless Blessing for a measly one thousand dollars a month and there are many takers.
Toldot teaches us that neither Jacob nor his twin Esau were perfect. Jacob came very close to the moral bright line in his single-minded quest for the Blessing, but Esau’s sin was immeasurably worse; it was the sin of betrayal and what betrayal is worse than that of one’s own heritage?
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