A Meal for Eisav ... A Fork for Ya'akov
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
Just like the lead-up to the Akeida represented a proverbial fork in the
road between the Jewish people and the nations of the world (when Avraham
and Yitzchak left Eliezer and Yishmael behind on the way to Har HaMoriah;
see Chapter 22), so too does the purchase of the birthright in this week's
parsha represent another fork in the road, this time within Avraham's
family, between his grandsons, Ya'akov and Eisav.
First some background. It was the day that Avraham had died, and Yitzchak
began to sit shiva. As is the custom, Ya'akov prepared the mourner's meal,
which included eggs and lentils, which, being round, represent the "wheel"
of life. Eisav, on the other hand, found little reason to curtail his
regular activities because his grandfather died. On the contrary! It was an
exhausted Eisav that came in search of food-exhausted from murdering,
raping, and pillaging, according to the midrash!
As Divine Providence would have it, Eisav made his way right for Ya'akov's
tent. Seeing the food, he commanded Ya'akov to literally just pour it into
his mouth. Ya'akov, realizing the propitious moment, made Eisav sell the
birthright for the food, and swear that he'd never go back on the sale.
Eisav, feeling close to death, saw little meaning in being the firstborn,
and agreed only too readily to give it up for some food. The deal was made,
Eisav got his food, and left, despising his birthright, says the Torah.
Some questions arise. First of all, how could Ya'akov be so manipulative?
His brother was on the verge of death, and he was able to bargain for the
birthright? Doesn't that sound somewhat crass? Second of all, even if Eisav
did agree to surrender his birthright for the lifesaving lentils of his
brother, shouldn't the sale have been null and void? After all, wasn't
Eisav under duress at the time he met Ya'akov's demand to sell and swear
Some more background. The rabbis teach that Avraham didn't give birth to
twelve tribes because he still contained some negative elements within him
that had to be purged. Some of that happened through the births of sons
from Hagar, first Yishmael, and then the other five children he fathered
through Hagar (Ketura) after Sarah's death. However, even that didn't
cleanse Avraham's line of all these elements, as was evident from the fact
that Yitzchak could father a son like Eisav.
It was only Ya'akov who was able to father the Twelve Tribes, because he
was "cleansed" enough of these elements to do so. However, even his
children still exhibited some questionable behavior, which means that as
great as Ya'akov was, and as spiritually refined as he was, still, his
children still bore some of those negative elements which we have been
purging through history since then.
Not only was Ya'akov aware of this historical process, he also understood
its importance to the purpose of creation, and was therefore devoted to
help it along. Avraham's death was precisely the time to begin thinking
about the future of his descendants. The only question was, on which side
of the line did Eisav fall; was he to be accepted and brought into the
fold, or rejection and filtered out of the future Jewish people. Ya'akov
needed a test to know Eisav's status, and it seemed that G-d agreed as
What Ya'akov wanted to know was Eisav's philosophy on life-was his mind's
eye on the ultimate purpose of creation, or was he stuck in the
here-and-now. If Eisav was prepared to "die" in the World-to-Come for life
in This World (represented by selling the birthright for the food), then he
had clearly veered off the straight-and-narrow for good. If he objected to
Ya'akov's conditions for the purchase of the lentils, then, that proved
that Eisav still related to the ways of his father and grandfather. Making
him swear was just the way to prove to everyone just how deeply Eisav
despised the birthright, and faith in a world he could not see.
Therefore, the birthright was the litmus test of Eisav's commitment to
Avraham's world. It acted as a filter to "sift" Eisav out of the Jewish
people, just as the miracle over Har HaMoriah had "sifted" out Eliezer and
Yishmael at the time of the Akeida. In the end, the birthright could only
belong to Ya'akov, for only he proved to be the one to continue on the
attitude and way of his fathers.
A classic of all classic questions on Chumash is, how could Yitzchak be
fooled by the clearly evil Eisav, and favor him over the righteous Ya'akov?
There are many explanations for this. However, one explanation in
particular answers a lot of questions, especially the one about what
Yitzchak saw in Eisav in the first place.
First of all, it is important to point out that Eisav, no matter what
anyone thought of him, was the bechor (firstborn son). As such, he was
entitled to all the benefits of the bechor, and Yitzchak, as his father,
was obligated to provide them. According to the strict din (law), which is
what Yitzchak best related to (as opposed to chesed, which was the trait of
his father, Avraham), Eisav was the bechor, and to ignore that physical
reality would have been a denial of the Divine Providence that arranged it
No, as Yitzchak saw it, G-d had known what He was doing when He made Eisav
the bechor; who was he to interfere with that process? True belief in the
providence of G-d would dictate that Yitzchak act responsibly and bless
Eisav, in spite of what his inner feelings were screaming out. If halacha
(Jewish law) mandates an "unpleasant" course of action, it must be carried
out, with the belief that G-d will work out the details on His own.
Not so for Rivka. As the mother of the bechor, she had no halachic
obligation to make sure that Eisav received the blessings. As a matriarch,
it was her job to assure the spiritual purity of the future Jewish people.
That's why for her, it was not a violation of trust in Divine Providence to
scheme and send Ya'akov in for the blessings in place of Eisav. On the
contrary! In concert with Yitzchak's obedience, Divine Providence worked
through her to arrange that Ya'akov usurp the right of the firstborn son,
without Yitzchak having to deviate from the halacha one bit!
It is a wonderful lesson to integrate, and it teaches us how to use faith
and trust in G-d's master plan to work with Divine Providence, as opposed
to against it. Many people read the occurrences of history with a jaundiced
eye, mistrusting G-d's judgment in what happens in their personal life, and
the life of the nation. They feel the need to "override" G-d's authority,
and tinker with Jewish law to make it more "compatible" with current
However, halacha is halacha, meaning, that situations come and go, but
Torah law is eternal. As the Talmud points out (Kesuvos 3a), even
rabbinical laws take precedence over life-threatening edicts of oppressing
nations, for, the latter are temporal, but the former express eternal
In the end, both Yitzchak and Rivka had been right. Yitzchak had worked
with the Divine Providence, and carried out his responsibility of blessing
the firstborn with deviation. Rivka had arranged that Ya'akov receive the
brocha in place of Eisav. In the end, G-d worked it that Rivka was
successful, and Yitzchak blessed the truth firstborn (whom, the midrash
says, had been conceived first). Yitzchak could take pleasure in the fact
that he had trusted G-d to the end. Rivka could take pleasure from the fact
that Ya'akov received the brocha due to him. And the two of them could take
pleasure in knowing they had done G-d's will, and that Jewish history was
well on its way, along its long journey to national fulfillment.
The midrash asks the obvious question: Why does the Torah start off
discussing the descendants of Yitzchak, and then mention that Avraham was
Yitzchak's father? (Rashi also deals with the question in a simpler
manner.) The midrash answers: to indicate that it was Yitzchak's
descendant, Ya'akov, who was responsible for saving Avraham's life in Ur
Kasdim, after Nimrod had forced him into the fiery furnace to change his
belief in G-d (see Parashas Lech-Lecha for more details), as the following
Rav Shmuel, the son of Rav Yitzchak said, "Avraham would not have been
saved from the furnace of fire had it not been for the merit of his future
grandson, Ya'akov." A parable explains this: once a man was brought before
the Sultan to be judged, who subsequently ruled that the man should be
burned to death. However, by way of astrology, it was revealed to the
Sultan that in the future, the man, should he not be killed, would father a
daughter who would one day marry the king. The Sultan said, "It is worth
saving this man's life for the daughter that will one day marry the king!"
Thus Avraham was judged to be burned in Ur Kasdim, and when it was revealed
before God that in the future, Avraham would have a descendant Ya'akov, G-d
said, "It is worth saving Avraham in the merit of Ya'akov!" (Bereishis
For most of us this is strange. We thought that it was a given that Avraham
was supposed to have been saved from the fire of Kasdim, in his own merit!
Didn't his willingness to die for his belief warrant a miracle on its own?!
No, says the midrash. Avraham should have and would have died that day had
it not been for Ya'akov. This does not mean, however, that had Avraham died
that he would not have received ample reward for all of his self-sacrifice,
even for the years of life he would have denied. Indeed, in the end,
Avraham's death would have been the world's loss, not his own, for eternal
reward in the World-to-Come would have more than compensated him for what
he had suffered in this world.
From this we can learn that, though G-d disdains open miracles (for they
lessen the free-will choice of disbelievers), He will break with tradition,
so-to-speak, and perform them for a person who is indispensable to creation
because of what he or she will eventually produce if he or she survives. In
such a situation, G-d may interfere on his or her behalf to save them in
either a small or major way. Many times the positive mazel we experience is
not because of what we do or don't deserve, but because of what may
eventually come from us. It is a point to ponder from time-to-time,
especially when things go our way and we wonder why!
It is pointed out that the brocha Eisav received makes no mention of G-d,
whereas, the brocha of Ya'akov not only mentions G-d in it, but even uses
the name of G-d that alludes to Him as a Judge. But isn't rain and
sustenance a function of G-d's mercy? And why should Eisav's blessing be
The answer given is basic but central to Jewish belief. As the Talmud
points out (with regard to Rivka and Yitzchak's inability to have children
at first; Yevamos 64a), righteous people suffer often to make them pray to
G-d, for G-d desires their prayers. This is not just because G-d wants them
to pray, but also because G-d desires a close relationship with them, and
all of us for that matter. This is why, says the Talmud, the manna fell
once a day in the desert during the 40 years, and not once a year, which is
the way we'd have preferred it to be, as the midrash indicates:
The students of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai asked him: Why did the manna not
fall once a year [as opposed to once a day]? He replied, I shall give you
a parable: It can be compared to a mortal king who had a son for whom he
provided food once a year; [as a result] he saw his son once a year.
Thereupon he provided for his maintenance daily, so that he called on him
every day. The same [is the case] with Israel. One who had four or five
children would worry and say, "Perhaps no manna will come down tomorrow,
and all will die of hunger." Thus they turned their faces to heaven [in
prayer]. (Yoma 76a)
By making the blessing dependent on Ya'akov's, and later his descendants'
closeness to G-d, G-d assured that we'd always have to turn to Him in times
of trouble, in order to maintain our relationship with Him. Our prosperity
and security became, through the blessing in this week's parsha, the
spiritual thermometer to indicate where we are holding in our relationship
By not entering G-d into Eisav's blessing, it was like telling Eisav
"Good-bye. See you in a couple of thousand years ... But by then it will be
too late to make amends." However, by mentioning G-d, especially G-d as
Judge in our blessing, it was a way of indicating that, not only does G-d
want an ongoing relationship with us, but that He will do whatever
necessary to maintain that relationship throughout the ages, like any
loving and concerned parent would do.