In parsha Toldot, Esau, the oldest son of Isaac and Rebecca, shockingly sells his birthright to his younger twin Jacob for a simple bowl of lentils. The episode begins after the death of the brothers’ saintly grandfather Abraham. Esau goes out in the fields and, according to the Talmud (Gemara Bava Batra 16b), engages in violence and rape. When he returns home, Esau is famished from his ugly exertions, and demands that Jacob hand over his bowl of lentils. Many of us have used the phrase “I’m starving!” when we’re very hungry; Esau seems to literally believe this, and agrees to Jacob’s condition that Esau exchange his birthright for the tasty soup.
Given Esau’s willingness to trade his birthright so cheaply, his later behavior beside his father’s deathbed is surprising. Jacob tricks Isaac into giving him the eldest son’s blessing, thereby entrusting the pious youngest son with the family’s spiritual mission. One would think that Esau wouldn’t care, given how little he values his status as eldest son. However, when he is deprived of the blessing, he flies into a frenzy and decides to kill his brother. What changed? How come suddenly being treated as the eldest son is so important to Esau?
Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetsky explains the apparent discrepancy by sharing a story about the great Rav Chaim Soleveitchik (1853-1918.) A wealthy butcher came to Rav Chaim to determine whether an especially valuable steer was kosher. Rav Chaim inspected the slaughtered animal and determined that it was unfortunately not kosher. The butcher accepted the disappointing ruling with equanimity, saying “I can afford to make a sacrifice once in a while.” A month later, the butcher and another man came before Rav Chaim to adjudicate a dispute about a small amount of money. Again, Rav Chaim’s ruling went against the butcher, but this time the wealthy man became enraged, threatening the rabbi and insulting him. Later, Rav Chaim’s children wondered why the butcher was accepting when he lost a significant sum, but became infuriated by a much smaller loss. Rav Chaim explained, “People are willing to lose for Heaven’s sake, but they cannot handle another person receiving what they believe is theirs.”
So too, being the eldest son meant nothing to Esau, until his brother received the eldest son’s blessing. As it says in the Torah, “Esau harbored a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing which his father had given him….” (Gen 27:41). The lesson here is universal. Judging ourselves in comparison to others leads to misery. Rather, happiness lies in coming closer to the Holy One by improving our own behavior.
Image: “Esau and Jacob” by Lluis Ribes Mateu, 1696