A brief history lesson is in order as we approach this week’s Torah portion. The scene in question takes place on the day of Abraham’s death. It was customary in ancient times that when an elder (like a grandfather) died, the eldest grandchild would prepare Lentil Stew for his mourning parent. Lentils are round and symbolic of the cycle of life and so a Lentil Stew was the meal of choice for mourners.
On the day that Abraham passed away, Esav, the elder of Yaacov’s two sons, should have busied himself with preparing the meal for his father. He didn’t. He went out hunting and spending time with some of his unsavory ‘friends’. Yaacov, seeing that his brother was shirking his responsibilites, took it upon himself to prepare the Lentil Stew for Yitzhak.
At this juncture, Esav returns from his wanderings and instead of going to his own tent where his own servant would have prepared food for him, he goes to the tent of his brother and demands some of the stew. On the heels of many similar instances of Esav’s indifference towards his responsibility as the firstborn, Yaacov challenges his brother to sell him the birthright. Esav readily agrees — no hesitation. He has no respect or regard for the birthright and the responsiblities that came with it. So, the Torah says, Esav SOLD his birthright to his brother for a bowl of lentils.
If the Torah clearly says, not once but twice, that Esav SOLD the birthright, why then would any commentator say that Yaacov “stole” the birthright? He is described in the words of some as dishonest, a thief, a deceiver; one would think – if the opinions of some are to be believed – that Esav was the ‘pitiful victim’ of Yaacov rather than the profane and violent man he really was.
(Note: Hmm, nothing’s changed, has it? Doesn’t this sound strangely familiar to what happens today regarding Israel and our neighbors???)
Search through the Torah and NOWHERE will you find the God of Israel accusing Yaacov of any dishonesty, deception or cheating. On the contrary, the angels of God accompany him everywhere he goes. Furthermore, in Bamidbar/Numbers 23:18-21 the prophet Bilam declares “He [God] perceives no iniquity in Jacob and saw no perversity in Israel; Hashem, his God, is with him and the friendship of the King is in him.”
Before Esav and Yaacov were born, God had told their mother, Rivka (Rebecca) that two nations were in her womb and two peoples would come forth from her; that one would be stronger than the other and that the older will serve the younger.
This was God’s choice, communicated to Rivkah before the twins were born. The birthright bestowed authority to be the extended family’s leader in the next generation. It was pre-eminently clear that Esav had no interest whatsoever in stepping into the role of the firstborn. He had married foreign women which deeply grieved his parents and drew him further and further away from the ideals and the calling of his father and grandfather before him.
Yaacov, not Esav, was the one chosen to father the twelve tribes of Israel from whom would come the people of Israel. To take his divinely ordained position required that he have the birthright. The ease with which Esav dispensed with it only highlights his utter disdain for the Covenant and Destiny to which his grandfather and father had been called.
Both young men, Esav and Yaacov, knew well the promises of God to Abraham and to their father, Yitzhak. Both of them knew there was a divine destiny. Esav preferred pleasure to promises.
Yaacov preferred the ways of the God of Abraham. A thorough study of his life ultimately proves that he was committed to seeing the Covenant preserved, guarded and transmitted to future generations.
What about his mother, Rivka?
Rivka left her home and country to become Yitzhak’s wife. She spent many years in the extended household of Avraham and understood the destiny of the family into which she had married. She suffered through years of being barren, knowing the line of Abraham needed to continue through her. She became pregnant finally through the prayers of her husband.
Most importantly, she knew well that the only reason she was even married to Yitzhak was because he had been saved from death by a substitute. Therefore, when Yitzhak, in his old age, intended to bless Esav, she took action. She gave instructions to Yaacov which created a situation in which Yaacov was the ‘substitute’ for Esav so that the blessing that accompanied the birthright would be given to its rightful owner, Yaacov.
It is important to note that when Yaacov took to his father the food his mother had prepared, he made no effort to disguise his voice for we read that Yaacov says, “The voice is the voice of Yaacov but the hands are the hands of Esav.” Was it at that moment that Yitzhak remembered the prophecy given to his pregnant wife those many years before?
He gave the blessing of the firstborn to Yaacov and at no time then or later does Yitzhak condemn or accuse Yaacov of wrongdoing — and neither does God. It is only Esav who accuses Yaacov of ‘stealing’ the birthright, though he knew full well that he had sold it to his brother.
This account viewed superficially — and without being set in its historical context — has been interpreted incorrectly by those who would impose contemporary western ideas and mores on an ancient biblical and historical society. This is also one of those passages that demands study in the original language for the translations simply do not convey deeply enough what’s really going on.
But let’s go one step further to find the lesson that applies to each one of us. In Vayikra 25:17 the Torah says, “Do not wrong one another.” That includes a prohibition against judging one another arbitrarily and harshly, exactly as some have done in their commentaries about Yaacov.
Things are not always the way they seem. Our responsibility is to love one another and to give each other respect. To presume the right to be critical and judge others is at the very least arrogant; we often do not even understand ourselves! How can we presume to judge the motivations of anyone else?
In Tune with Torah this week = repenting for arrogant and superficial judgments about others and resolve to apply ourselves rather to the law of love and respect for our fellow human being, made in the image of God just as we were.