Do you know anyone who does nothing, but expects the world of everyone else? You know, the manipulative kind who never did a stitch of housework but raises a stink if the house is untidy or who won’t be caught dead in the kitchen, but beware if his dinner is served late. There are those who are quick to put down others, but fly off the handle should anyone insult them or those who always berate their spouses, but cannot stand when their own faults are pointed out.
The world is full of such people. Some are deliberately obtuse, others are simply clueless. Either way, they are difficult to live with. It takes a saint to put up with such nonsense, but there comes a time when it has to stop, a time when more harm is done by tolerating it than by ending it. At such times, tolerating this nonsense makes one complicit in the crime; without intending or realizing it, the sufferers become enablers – the victims becomes somewhat responsible for their own suffering.
Bullies prey on the weak. They never abuse the strong because they fear the pushback they are sure to receive. Bullies are insecure at heart, but too weak to face themselves in therapy. Instead they take it out on the meek. They bolster their confidence and reinforce their dominance by abusing those who are afraid to stand up for themselves.
By standing up for ourselves, we end the abuse, force the bullies to face their own truth.
The longer the victim tolerates the bullying, the more the bully will abuse. But the moment the victim stands up and pushes back with a ‘no nonsense’ attitude and a fearless confidence, the bully will cower in fear. Bullies are cowards by nature and need help to face their own cowardice. By taking the abuse we hurt ourselves and the bully at the same time. By standing up for ourselves, we end the abuse, force the bullies to face their own truth and begin the therapeutic process of standing down their demons. It requires inordinate courage and cannot be expected from everyone, but it is worth every effort.
Birthright for Lentils
This explains something that has bothered me for years about the way our forefather Jacob purchased the birthright from his older brother Esau. Jacob and Esau were twins. Jacob was a wholesome man, who dwelled in the tents of study and Esau was a hunter, a man of the fields. Jacob knew that despite Esau’s immorality and deceit, his birthright would entitle his descendants to serve as priests in G-d’s future Temple1 and perpetually feared that the privilege would fall into improper and immoral hands.
One day, shortly after their grandfather Abraham’s funeral, Jacob was cooking lentil soup for his father. It is traditional to eat oval foods after a funeral to remind us of the cycle of life. Today it is common for mourners to eat boiled eggs, back then it was lentil soup. As Jacob was stirring the soup, Esau burst into the kitchen and demanded that Jacob give him some soup.
Upon seeing Esau’s desperate hunger Jacob conceived of an opportunity and offered to sell him some soup in exchange for the birthright; once and for all ending the danger of the priesthood falling into improper hands. Esau, consumed with hunger, quickly assented. After insisting that Esau take an oath and sign a contract, Jacob finally relented and gave him some soup.2
Stop the Bullying
I have always understood Jacob’s desperate desire for the birthright. It wasn’t merely something he coveted; it was the degradation of G-d’s name that would result from an unworthy priesthood that he feared. But I never understood how Jacob, a man the Torah describes as wholesome, could justify manipulating Esau at such a vulnerable moment.3 This is not the act of a wholesome man. This is the behavior of a wily operator who knows how to manipulate an opportunity to achieve his aim.4
I have recently learned that far from being opportunistic, Jacob was calling for an end to Esau’s bullying. The distinction of birthright comes with privilege and responsibility. Esau took the privilege, but neglected the responsibilities. The oldest son is chiefly responsible for the parents as they age. The oldest son ought to be the first to carry the burden if he intends to be the first to collect the inheritance.
If Esau wanted to inherit Isaac’s Divine blessing, the least he could do was stay home to care for his father. If he wanted to be Abraham’s chief heir, the least he could do was attend his grandfather’s funeral. Esau was never present. Whenever he was needed he was out gallivanting in the fields. Jacob, who was always at home, studying in the tents, was called upon to fill in for his absentee brother.
Hence it was Jacob who traveled with his father to the funeral. It was Jacob who attended his father at the funeral and brought him home after the funeral. When Esau finally came in from the wild, Jacob was cooking lentil soup for his father, a task that should have been carried out by the oldest son.
Yet, Esau comes prancing in demanding to be fed. He didn’t do a stitch of work and demanded to be treated and waited on like an older brother.5 Not only did he want soup, he wanted to be spoon-fed because he was too tired to eat. Jacob had finally had enough and demanded an end to the injustice.
“Sell, like this day, your birthright to me,” he said. The commentaries6 struggle with the meaning of the words, “like this day,” but under our treatment the meaning is clear. You have always shirked your firstborn duties as you did most prominently today, the day your father needed you most. You don’t deserve your birthright if I have to fulfill your obligations. Sell your birthright to me.
Jacob was not manipulating Esau at a vulnerable moment, he was standing up to Esau’s bullying. For once he had had enough and would tolerate it no further. To tolerate bullying is to enable it and on this day Jacob stopped enabling it. He stood up for himself and finally stopped the bullying. It took a great deal of courage, but it was Jacob’s finest moment.7
- Bereshit Rabbah 63: 13 quoted by Rashi in his comments on Genesis 25: 31. The priesthood was taken from the firstborn after the Golden Calf event and given to the Levites, the only tribe that refused to worship the Calf.
- See Genesis 25: 27-32. See also Bamidbar Rabbah 63:11 and Babylonian Talmud, Sotah: 13a.
- Esau clearly felt deceived by Jacob, despite the perfect legality of the sale, as evidenced in Genesis 27: 36.
- I know we are nitpicking when we judge Jacob for such a mild fault, still the notion that our beloved Patriarch engaged in even mild unsavory behavior leaves unsatisfied and begs for an explanation.
- See Rabbenu Bachye on Genesis 25:31 that firstborn was entitled to rule over the younger siblings.
- See Bereshit Rabba 63:13, Rashi, Rashbam, Ramban, Rabbenu Bachye, Daas zkenim, Kli Yakar and Or Hachayim.
- This explanation is essay is based on commentary of Don Isaac Abarbanel on Genesis 25:31.