What would you think if you saw a luxury car being offered for sale for a
ridiculously low price? You would undoubtedly wonder what was wrong with
it. The price a seller demands reflects his opinion of the object he is
selling. It would take a large sum to make him part with a cherished
possession. As for his children, who are more precious than anything else
in the world, he would not sell them for any sum at all. But something he
holds in low regard he would give away for a pittance.
In this week’s Torah portion, we encounter the struggle over the firstborn
birthright of Israel between Esau and Jacob, Isaac’s two sons. As it turns
out, it is not much of a struggle. This firstborn birthright signifies the
privilege of becoming the chosen people of Hashem, and Esau, being the
older of the two sons, holds first claim to it. It is Jacob, however, who
yearns for this birthright with all his heart. One day, Esau returns from
his exertions in the field thoroughly famished, and he agrees to sell the
birthright to Jacob for a bowl of red lentil soup. And so, the Torah
concludes, Esau ate, drank, rose and left, having disgraced the birthright.
Let us think for a moment. At which point did Esau disgrace the
birthright? When he actually ate the soup or when he agreed to sell the
birthright for a bowl of soup? It would seem that as soon as he agreed to
give it away for a pittance he had already shown his utter contempt for
the spiritual birthright of Israel. Why then does the Torah accuse him of
disgracing the birthright only after he ate, drank, rose and left?
Our Sages explain that Esau might have been so famished that his behavior
could be excused. It is quite possible that his discomfiture caused him to
lose his sense of proportion momentarily and agree to sell his birthright
for a bowl of soup. Perhaps he was not thinking clearly at the time and
agreed to do something on the spur of the moment that went against his
But if so, what happened later when his hunger was sated and his thirst
assuaged? Did he protest that his agreement had been made under duress and
that the transaction was null and void? Did he rant and rage at what Jacob
had done to him?
Not at all. He just gulped down the soup, stood up and stomped out. This
was when he demonstrated his disdain for the birthright. Had he shown any
regret he would have defined himself as an upright person, but he didn’t.
Therefore, the Torah records this moment for posterity as the act of
contempt for the birthright.
A rich man once visited the town’s poorest man late one night.
“Listen, my good fellow,” said the rich man. “You know I have everything a
person could possibly want. I have estates and carriages and the finest
horses. But one thing I do not have is a child. Your situation is the
exact opposite of mine. You live in this little hovel and you cannot even
put a few crusts of bread on the table. But you do have children. Ten of
them.” The rich man paused.
The poor man looked at the rich man curiously. “So what is the point?”
“I want to propose a deal,” said the rich man. “You give me one of your
ten children, and I will give you one tenth of everything I possess. What
do you say?”
The poor man was taken aback. He stood up and looked at the faces of his
sleeping family behind the partition. Which child could he give away? This
one? Surely not. That one? Impossible. And thus he looked at the faces of
all his children and finally decided he could give none of them away. He
had no choice but to reject the rich man’s offer.
The next day, overcome with remorse for even having considered the
arrangement, he poured his heart out to his wife.
“Do not tear yourself down,” she told him. “It was the pressure of our
poverty to drove you to think about it. But when it came right down to it,
you couldn’t do it. You are a good man.”
In our own lives, we all know full well how we are driven by impulse, by
the spur of the beguiling moment. But what do we do when the moment
passes? Do we listen to that little voice of guilt that Hashem has so
kindly implanted deep in our brains, showing ourselves to be essentially
good people? Or do we plunge on ahead, heedless and thoughtless, the
helpless captives of our impulses? It is this moment, when we have had the
chance to pause and reflect, that truly defines who we are and what we are