Of all types of sibling rivalry, probably the most intense is with twin boys. Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac and Rebecca, began struggling even inside the womb! At birth, they fought to see who would get out first. And they grew up vying for the attention of their father Isaac -to see who would inherit the mantle of Jewish leadership.
The Torah (Genesis 25:29-34) describes a pivotal incident:
"One day Jacob was cooking lentil stew, and Esav came in hungry from the field. Esav declared, 'I'm famished. I beg you to feed me that red stew!' Jacob said, 'In exchange, sell me your birthright.' Esav said, 'Behold, I am dying, so what good is this birthright anyway?!' So Esav agreed to sell the birthright. Jacob gave him bread and lentil stew. Esav ate and drank, and went on his way, despising the birthright."
An obvious question: Why would Jacob take such unfair advantage of his hungry brother?
There was no unfair advantage because Esav didn't want the birthright in the first place. The birthright primarily entailed spiritual, rather than material, wealth. And in addition to the birthright privileges, there came many responsibilities as well, such as being a role model for the Jewish nation. Esav wanted the easy life; he wasn't looking for more responsibility! That's why the Torah says that he "despised the birthright."
But this doesn't really answer the question. If Esav was in fact starving to death, then how could Jacob have coerced him into a deal? Jewish law clearly states that a person is not bound by agreements made under the threat of life-and-death!
The answer is revealed by a careful reading of verses: "Jacob gave him bread and lentil stew." Jacob first gave Esav bread, so that he would satisfy his urgent hunger and be removed from the status of "starving to death." Only then did Jacob give the lentil stew, which Esav ― by accepting it ― sealed the deal, fair and square.
I Want it Now
On a deeper level, there is another way to understand Esav’s statement, "I'm going to die anyway." Esav is revealing his philosophy of life: “The world begins when I'm born, and ends when I die. So who needs to be concerned with intangibles like a ‘spiritual birthright.’ I’ll take the stew and be happy now!”
The Midrash even says that after consummating the deal, Esav mocked Jacob's stupidity. “I got a hot bowl of soup and you got some abstract future reward!” laughed Esav.
Esau is a man driven by physical desire. His concern is only with the here and now. He demands instant gratification. He seeks physical pleasure and comfort, because for him, the pleasures of the body are all that life has to offer. This is reflected in his actions:
- Esau says, "Feed me that red stew." He is so hedonistic that he doesn't even want to expend the effort of lifting the bowl himself. "Just pour it down my throat," he tells Jacob.
- Esau refers to the stew as "red stuff." He is attracted to its bright, colorful packaging. The inner content is less important; he likes the way it looks from a superficial, sensual perspective.
- Esav is so stricken by desires that he is even willing to consume nearly-raw lentil stew. "Na" means half cooked (as in Exodus 12:9), yet Esav has to have it NOW! (source: "Me'am Loaz " ― Genesis 25:30)
Signs of Maturity
Every human being is comprised of two components ― the physical (body) and the spiritual (soul). Each part needs to be nourished and sustained, yet each achieves this through very different means. The body seeks comfort and immediate gratification: food, sleep, money,. The soul seeks longer-lasting, eternal pleasures: meaning, love, good deeds, connection to God.
The Talmud says: "Who is the wise person? He who sees the future." This ability to consider our long-term consequences is what distinguishes the mature from the immature. A child cannot predict that eating 20 pieces of candy now will lead to a stomach ache later. A college student may not see that promiscuity can lead to life-threatening disease. Or a father may not see that working overtime can lead to irreparable disconnection from his wife and children.
If things had played out differently, the Jewish patriarchs could have been known as "Abraham, Isaac and Esau." But alas, Esau lost the struggle between body and soul. So instead, for thousands of years and until today, millions of Jews pray to the God of "Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."
Today, each of us is fighting Esau's battle. Body versus Soul. The multi-billion-dollar media machine is constantly enticing us to buy into the lifestyle of "Instantaneous-ism." Between fast-food restaurants, iPod Touch, one-click ordering, SMS, on-line banking, wireless-streaming-hands free technology, we’ve become accustomed to a world where immediacy is the norm. And the effect is that we've lost our sense of perspective.
Marketing experts are shrewd. They don't want us to grow up. They want us to remain childish in our demand for toys and games and instant fun. Because if we were to mature, our impulsive, ego-driven buying would be greatly curtailed!
To win the battle, we must be pro-active in undertaking spiritual activities. Something as simple as saying a blessing over food turns a "physical" act into a spiritual experience. We reflect on the deeper aspect of eating as a way to give the body energy to then fulfill a higher purpose. The mere fact that we pause is a counter-balance to the instantaneous urge.
Rabbi Alexander Ziskind (19th century Europe) had the custom to break the Yom Kippur fast each year with boney fish. Why? Because this way he was forced to eat slowly and not gorge the food. In the throes of hunger, the rabbi was determined that his soul maintain control over his body.
It is one's ability to moderate (not squelch, but curb) the body's needs that gives us the freedom to pursue the needs of the soul. Because when all is said and done, our lives are only as good as the soul we've nurtured.
Next time you're at a funeral, listen closely to the eulogy. You will never hear about what kind of car he drove, how many different restaurants he visited, or how much money he shrewdly invested. At that moment of everlasting truth, there is no question what is truly important: He was a devoted parent, donated money to build a hospital, cared for others, and was loyal to his faith.
Change of Mind
Now we can understand more deeply why the verse says that Esau "went on his way, despising the birthright." Subconsciously, Esau knew he had sabotaged his own potential for greatness. And now in order to alleviate his guilt, he rationalized: "I didn't want that lousy birthright, anyway!"
The Midrash says that years later, as Esau grew older, he began to reconnect with his inner voice and gain more clarity about life's priorities. So Esau decided to go to Jacob with an offer to renegotiate the birthright. The offer was a dramatic turnaround: Esau was willing to part with all his wealth, in order to gain a share in the eternity of the Jewish people!
Alas, the Midrash continues: When Esau's children heard how he was planning to buy something as intangible as a spiritual connection, they promptly put a stop to his plans. "Forget it, Dad," they said, "We're not letting you spend our inheritance money!"
Understandably, Esau was disappointed in his children's attitude. And then he realized where they'd learned it from...
The Midrash concludes that upon his death, Esau's head rolled into the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where it was buried along with Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca. Esau was not evil; he was just confused. His head was worthy of burial with the founders of the Jewish people. The desires of his body, however, proved to be his undoing. It caused him to be cut off from eternity.
What is the lesson for us today? Our actions today, and the choices we make, affect not only our own lives, but influence generations to come. So keep your eye on the ball. Acquire wisdom. Know exactly what you're living for. Keep your material desires in check. Beware of the "instantaneous" urge that may haunt you for a lifetime... and beyond.
Rabbi Shraga Simmons