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What was the dispute between Jacob and Esau?

Jacob and Esau. Biological brothers; sworn enemies. One, a man of truth; the other, a rebel. One emerged from simplicity to sustain the message of G-d; the other descended from power to become, in his own eyes, a victim. Their relationship was dissonant, complex, on the surface an exercise in deception; beneath the surface, a wellspring of ethical surprises.

The critical encounters between Jacob and Esau in this week’s Torah portion are Jacob’s purchase of Esau’s birthright and Jacob’s securing the blessing of their father Isaac.

Did Jacob steal Esau’s birthright (Genesis 25:25-34)? If so why does the Bible hold up Jacob, not Esau, as the paradigm of truth? If Jacob did not steal Esau’s birthright, what was the more subtle transaction between them, and its significance?

Esau was the firstborn. The birthright was his. But a birthright entails responsibility; in Esau’s case, a signal one — to embody and disseminate the Divine teachings of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebeccah. At the dawn of history, virtually all of humanity was pagan; a covenant between G-d and humanity would depend on the continuity of the Abrahamic teachings — ultimately, on Abraham and Sarah’s firstborn grandson, Esau.

According to Rabbi Joseph J. Hurvitz, “the Elder of Novorodock” (d. 1919), when Esau returned from the field and cast his eye on Jacob’s lentils, the critical event was Esau noting that the lentils were red.

Esau noted their appearance, their external character.

According to an ancient Jewish tradition, these lentils were the food of mourning. The Patriarch, Abraham, had died that day. Jacob was in mourning and Esau should have been. Esau, however, saw only surfaces: the color, not the meaning, of the food. The Bible marks Esau’s place in history by this incident. He is “Red.” “And Esau said to Jacob, ‘Pour into me, now, some of the red — this red [stuff] . . . He therefore called his name Red” (Gen. 25:30).

It is critical to note that the ethical dimension of the exchange between Esau and Jacob was not Jacob’s withholding of food from a famished Esau as an underhanded means of coercing Esau to sell his birthright.

It does appear this way, but only due to faulty translations, which have Jacob supplying Esau with “this red stuff” only after Esau agreed to sell his birthright. Standard translations read, “[Esau] sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew.” First the sale, then the food. However, as Avigdor Bonchek has pointed out, the Hebrew actually denotes, “Jacob had given Esau bread and lentil stew.” First the food, then the sale. Jacob fed his brother upon his return from the field; only after did the negotation over the birthright ensue.

According to another ancient Jewish tradition, Esau did far worse on this day of mourning than ignore his grandfather’s death. Esau committed five cardinal sins, including murder. Surely the Hebrew Bible should remember Esau by the likes of his violence, not by his casual attitude toward red lentils! But this attitude struck at the root of Esau’s character, and Jacob was a keen judge of character.

Jacob saw that Esau was superficial, concerned only with externals. As he sat down to his meal of mourning, Jacob realized that he would have to seek Esau’s birthright. Derived from Isaac and Rebeccah, the birthright was Esau’s mandate to make society holy, not by fleeing from the world but by staying with it and raising its level.

Esau’s mandate, in the phrase of Rabbi Hurvitz, was to be “the political man,” one who, surrounded by social and economic ills, finds a way to advance ethics and justice, to actualize G-d’s vision for humanity.

Jacob knew that if ever there were a time for Esau to see his role in continuing Abraham’s mission — to understand the responsibility of his birthright — it was at Abraham’s passing.

This was the pivotal transition in Abraham’s mission of bringing G-d’s teachings to history.

Jacob realized that if on the day that Abraham died, Esau could perceive only the glitter, not the substance, of reality — the color, not the meaning, of lentils — Esau could and would not accept the weight of destiny.

Unable to seize the moment, Esau was superficial enough to sell his birthright. All it would take was a mess of pottage, sparkling red.

Jacob was dextrous enough to secure the birthright and courageous enough to assume it. This was the moment that the Jewish historical-spiritual mission would have to be — and was — assumed by someone else.

Esau sold the birthright, Jacob lived up to it.

Jacob mixed with society, lived with the corrupt Laban without becoming corrupted, withstood dishonesty every day for 20 years without repayment in kind, even once (Gen. 31:38-42). Jacob “the political man” sustained G-d’s teachings within society. His insight, dexterity and courageous commitment to G-d constituted Jacob’s complex truth — the paradigm by which society has advanced its spiritual potential across the ages.

“Give truth to Jacob, kindness to Abraham,” said Prophet Micah (7:20). Jacob is the exemplar of truth. Truth: its vision is G-d’s vision of holiness, its personal decision is courage, its location is society, its transaction is surprising, its ethics are the embrace of all this and its verification is the Hebrew Bible itself.

No simple man, Jacob: no simple thing, truth.

When truth is pursued within society, it can corrupt. Not everyone is a Jacob.

Through his purchase of Esau’s birthright, Jacob saved it from corruption and secured G-d’s message to history. For others, however, societal challenges corrupt. Rabbi Hurvitz sets forth two alternatives. A person can withdraw from trying circumstances and become a recluse, or can understand societal challenges as Divine tests, as opportunities to foster courage and become the true “political man.”

The recluse avoids the tests of society by avoiding society. The polit-ical man lives among corruption without becoming corrupted. He realizes that corruption is a challenge to be overcome, but it runs deeper than that. There is a purpose to exposure to corruption besides personal growth. This purpose is to set a personal example, to show others that corruption can be overcome, that inner courage and ethical integrity are possible.

Now, once the transaction between Jacob and Esau was complete, Esau “despised his birthright” (Gen. 25:34). How so? Asked Rabbi Hurvitz: Wasn’t Esau’s willingness to sell the birthright just an honest admission that he could not fulfill its responsibilities? That he had merely opted to become a recluse? That he was weak to become the true political man?

After all. when Esau first came in from the field and saw Jacob’s lentils, he said, “I am going to die” (Genesis 25:32): die from the responsibilities of my birthright.

No, answered Rabbi Hurvitz, Esau was not engaged in honest self-scrutiny; he was rationalizing. He did not tell himself to be a recluse and Jacob to be a political man. Esau chose to be neither. He was simply corrupt.

The difference between the likes of Esau and those who renounce responsibility honestly is that honest recluses are free of envy. They honor the political man. They value his ethics within society, know his worth to G-d and humanity.

Hypocrites, however, hate the political man. Like Esau, they malign him and despise his service of G-d. “And Esau despised his birthright.

Yet, the father of Jacob and Esau — Isaac — wished to bless Esau, not Jacob (Genesis 27:1-41). Isaac mistook Esau for a political man. Only the political man mixes with society; only he needs special blessing.

Isaac did not wish to bless Jacob because Isaac mistook Jacob for a recluse, in no need of special blessing.

In truth, Jacob began as recluse. “And Jacob was a simple man, who dwelled in tents” (Gen. 25:27). After Jacob’s pivotal purchase of the birthright, however, Jacob changed. He became the political man; he, not Esau, needed special blessing.

It was Jacob who would mix with society, remain ethical and set the example. Jacob would advance Jewish destiny historically; Esau would satiate himself personally. Jacob would discern the difference between truth and Esau would rationalize truth away, claiming bitterly that Jacob had deceived him. In fact, Jacob had simply observed Esau’s rejection of spiritual responsibility and courageously came to the rescue.

Thus was Jacob blessed. Thus did he become the ethical and spiritual example. Jacob withstood the temptation to compromise the sacred mission that he made into his destiny: to found a world moral order by founding the Jewish people, the people of G-d — the 12 tribes of Israel, whom he sired.

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