In this week’s Torah reading we learn that after twenty years of marriage, Isaac and Rebekah remain childless. Knowing the divine covenant of which he was an heir, surely Rebekah’s barrenness must have been a concern and yet Isaac knew that his own mother, Sarah, had herself given birth to him after decades of the same frustrating struggle: ‘..Sarah was barren.’
To Isaac’s credit, as well as to Rebekah’s, the Torah makes no mention of Rebekah ever suggesting to Isaac that he do as his father did and have a child by one her servant girls who had come with her from Padan-Aram. Rather, we are told that Rebekah – after years of waiting – asked Isaac to pray for her, which he did. Subsequently, Rebekah is found to be pregnant and only later is it revealed that she is actually carrying twins.
When they are born just minutes apart, the issue of inheritance comes front and center. In a culture where the firstborn had greater privileges as well as more responsibilities, those few minutes were critical, all the more so in light of the fact that we are not just dealing here with the division of an estate and financial benefits, but a Divine covenant that Abraham’s descendants through Isaac were called to be a unique nation with an eternal destiny which included that one day they inherit the promised Land of Israel, albeit through a path of exile and slavery.
Esav and Jacob, raised in the same household and sharing the same DNA, were distinctly different in personality and attitude. Esav was a man of the here-and-now, of immediate gratification of his wants and desires. Patience was foreign to him and indeed, something to be relegated to the ‘absurd’. The very idea of ‘waiting’ for anything was abhorrent to his way of thinking. The notion that according to a promise to his grandfather, hundreds of years of suffering in anticipation of a future reward, seemed to him at best cruel joke or at the very least, the vain imaginings of an old man. Therefore he had no interest in his birthright or its responsibilities so when Jacob had something to offer that granted him immediate gratification for his momentary physical hunger, it was a ‘bargain’. What did he care about abstract visions and diligent faithfulness for some supposed distant promise? For Esav, it was a win-win. Let his brother relieve him of the family ‘burden’; its value was questionable at any rate but what wasn’t questionable was that he was hungry – right now – and he wanted that bowl of lentils. That was far more important than some vague future. And so the narrative concludes with this comment: “Esav despised the birthright.”
Jacob was entirely different. He was willing to sacrifice in the here-and-now, to postpone gratification for hundreds of years and accept almost unimaginable suffering, in order to gain the family’s true treasure: the privilege of being chosen by the Almighty to create a nation uniquely His that would inherit the Land of Israel. With a bowl of stew, Esav freed himself from responsibilities he loathed, and Jacob secured a relationship with the Holy One of Israel that included the gift of the Land of Israel – along with the price he knew would have to be paid for its possession.
In these two brothers’ attitudes we are faced with an issue that every human being must resolve: what fundamental outlook dictates my daily life?
Do I – like Esav – prefer immediate gratification of my wants and desires, living for today’s pleasure more than tomorrow’s opportunity? Is that my general way of life? Are my practical, daily decisions birthed out of impatience? Are my physical needs or wants more in control than the principles of maturity, integrity and responsibility that of necessity will require self-discipline and self-control?
Or do I – like Jacob – live my life on the basis of God’s eternal Word? Are His commandments and His promises near and dear to my heart? Dear enough to me that patience, sacrifice and personal responsibility have value in my thinking? Have I learned that the path to maturity involves choosing to guide my decisions by God’s word more than by my transitory wants? Is this what I’m teaching my children? Even more, is this what I model to my children and my grandchildren?
Our society prizes an affluence defined in terms of money, homes, possessions and luxuries – all of which we will leave behind sooner or later. The greater ‘affluence’ which, by the way, we will not leave behind but take with us into the world to come, is defined by such virtues as kindness, integrity, moral purity, self-discipline, compassion, humility and love of our fellowman. These, in fact, are the true ‘affluence’ of a life well-lived before God and man.
In Tune with Torah this week = a simple question: which ‘affluence’ do you choose?