Jacob Buys the Birthright for Soup

I’m studying the story of Jacob and Esau and I am so bothered by the simple storyline. Imagine the scenario. Two brothers, one is sitting at home studying and the other returns from an exhausting day at work. He asks his brother for something to eat. Does the brother help him, as any good brother should? No, he takes advantage of Esau’s weakness and only agrees to give him food if he parts with his most precious asset – his birthright. How can Jacob act so unethically? He was supposed to be righteous and he isn’t acting like any decent human being would!

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for your very important question. In truth, there are some fundamental lessons we may learn from the story. As with the Torah in general, there is so much more going on than we see on the surface.

Before all, I should mention that Jacob was not after the birthright privileges simply to receive a double portion of the inheritance (as per Deut. 21:17). In Biblical times, the firstborn was considered the spiritual heir of the family. Originally the Temple service was to be performed by the firstborns. This only changed when the nation – except for the Tribe of Levi – participated in the sin of the Golden Calf. At that point the firstborns became disqualified, and the service devolved upon the Levites. (See Numbers 8:16-18, Rashi to v. 17.)

Thus, Jacob, when seeing how wicked his brother Esau was beginning to become, realized he would be wholly unworthy of serving in the Temple. He thus found a means of having those duties transferred to him (who clearly was the spiritual force of the family) and to his future descendants. (See Rashi to Genesis 25:32.)

Now, in terms of the details of the story, there are several relevant points. According to the Sages Esau was not simply exhausted from a hard day’s work. He was “weary” (“ayaif”) from murder (Bereishit Rabbah 63:12 brought in Rashi to 25:29; see also Talmud Bava Batra 16b for several other sins he committed that day). This was the day his grandfather Abraham died. (Jacob as a result was cooking a lentil soup for his mourning father – as per the custom to prepare round foods for a mourner, signifying the cyclical nature of life.)

On that very day, perhaps with one less constraint, Esau “broke out” with all his vicious, lustful urges and went on a murderous rampage. His killing spree exhausted him. Jacob, although studying in his tent, was aware what was going on. (In spite of this, Esau managed to keep the extent of his wickedness hidden from his father Isaac.) Jacob knew he had to act and salvage the Divine service for someone more worthy.

In addition, although Esau was exhausted, it does not appear that he was on the verge of dropping dead. Presumably, this incident occurred very close to home. Esau could have easily gone home to his parents for lunch. But he didn’t have the patience. He saw food and wanted it then. For him gratification was all-important.

Jacob realized this and put Esau to the test. If spiritual privilege was so meaningless to him that he would trade it in for a bowl of soup, it demonstrated once and for all how unworthy of the Temple service he was. Had he had the self-control to wait just a little bit longer until he returned home, the sale would have never occurred. But Esau cared only to fill his stomach. For the smallest amount of self-gratification, he willingly traded in infinite spiritual rewards. And this was the proof Jacob required to finalize the sale. Divine service can only be for people who put God before themselves.

(Naturally, Esau resented it later, when he had come to his senses (Gen. 27:36). But the sale had already been struck – irrevocably. Esau had shown – and continued to show throughout his life – his true colors. Note in particular that in the immediate aftermath of the sale the Torah states “And Esau despised the birthright” (25:34). Serving God was contemptible to Esau; it had no value in his eyes whatsoever.)

There is another important theme running through the story. Although in superficial reading the Torah appears to portray Jacob as a swindler – in taking the birthright, then the blessings, and in his handling of Laban – the truth is, this was all entirely against his nature. As the Sages attest, Jacob was a man of truth (see Micah 7:20). The Torah describes him as a “plain” man (Genesis 25:27). As the commentator Rashi explains, it means he was a straight shooter. Jacob had no intrigue about him; he said what he meant and he meant what he said. It was actually not easy for Jacob to take advantage of his brother’s vulnerability in the way he did. But he forced himself, because he recognized how necessary it was.

(In fact, years later when he was to receive Isaac’s blessings in Esau’s stead, he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. His mother Rebecca had to push him into it.)

In spite of this, one of the themes of the story of Jacob is that he had to outgrow his original nature – of being the studious, introverted Torah scholar – to contend with the wicked of the world. He had to overcome an Esau and later a Laban – often by beating them at their own game. If not, he may have been personally righteous (had they not killed him first), but he would have never fathered a nation which would become world leaders, and which will ultimately lead the entire world to recognition of God. The Torah describes the main episodes of Jacob's life in which this development occurs, and the story of the birthright was the first one of them.

As you can see, this topic is very broad and fundamental. I just outlined a few of the basic ideas so you can appreciate the real story which was going on beneath the surface. As always, the Torah contains much more than we see when we read it on the surface.

See also this first article of a three-part series which discusses a related topic:

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