The Challenge of Tomorrow’s Blessing
Parashat Toledot opens in life and closes with the threat of death. Having wrestled with infertility, Rebekah and Isaac finally give birth to Jacob and Esau. Far from being an uneventful pregnancy, Rebekah becomes troubled by a feeling of “struggle” in her womb and goes to inquire of God. God tells Rebekah that two nations are in her womb and that one of those nations will serve the other (NB the Hebrew: rav ya’avod tzair is ambiguous, meaning either “the older (Esau) will serve the younger (Jacob)” or “the older (Esau)—the younger (Jacob) will serve”). Once the two are born, we telescope to a fateful episode in which Jacob is in the midst of a “Martha Stewart” moment, cooking lentil stew, when his famished older brother comes in from the field. Esau demands to have some of the lentil stew, but Jacob drives a hard bargain and, in return, demands that Esau give him the birthright. Esau agrees and fills his stomach; Jacob is content in his manipulative ways and leads himself further down a path of alienation. Still, Torah concludes this episode with a curious statement—namely, “Thus did Esau spurn his birthright” (Gen. 25:34). How are we to understand this editorial comment?
Ramban says, concerning “spurn his birthright,” that “One who despises the word will suffer thereby” (Prov. 13:13). But Torah has already explained the reason that Esau acquiesced to the sale. This was because he was already in mortal danger from his profession (hunting animals). It was likely that he would die while his father was alive, and the birthright carried no meaning until the passing of the father. So of what benefit was the birthright to him? After having eaten and drunk, he returned to his hunting in the field, which was the reason he despised his birthright. “For there is no desire in fools” (Eccles. 5:3) except to eat and drink and to fulfill their momentary desire, not caring about tomorrow.” So Ramban suggests that it was not simply a spontaneous act on the part of Esau. The picture he paints of Esau is of both a deliberate and reckless character. According to Ramban, Esau is resigned to his fate as a hunter. Because he has chosen a dangerous vocation and seems to live recklessly, he has no reverence for the future.
Consciously or unconsciously, many of us engage in dangerous habits—living wantonly and selfishly without regard for the future. We spurn “birthrights” every day as we continue to smoke, overeat, abuse others, overwork, etc. The challenge in each of our lives is to recognize and value “tomorrow’s blessing.” We cannot simply live our lives in the moment. Ephemeral pleasures often give way to long-term suffering. Unlike Esau, we must come to recognize that some things are far more valuable than physical satisfaction.
The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.