Esav said, “Look, I’m going to die. For what do I need the birthright?
According to Rashi, Esav was not in imminent danger of expiring from hunger. Hungry he was – but not that hungry. Yaakov wished him to sign off on his potential claims as the first-born to perform the future avodah of offerings to Hashem. Esav cautiously inquired about what this birthright thing was all about.
Yaakov explained that assuming the role of the priest for the family was fraught with complications. A great honor – certainly. But there were consequences. Breaking some of the rules meant punishment – even death.
“Death?!” said Esav. “What do I need that for? The birthright is yours, gladly.” The question and answer say it all. They are not limited to this particular transaction, however. They apply to the pursuit of every worthwhile spiritual elevation. There is always a price to be paid for going for great, whether for a small amount or all the way. Some people are willing to pay the price to seek advancement; others are not.
Chazal looked similarly at life in general, asking whether Man is better off having been created, or having never come into existence. Given all the opportunities for failure, and the attendant unsavory consequences to messing up, perhaps the entire enterprise isn’t within an individual’s interest. The gemara accepts the gloomy cost-benefit analysis in principle. However, that should not and does not deter some people. Those who are dedicated to spiritual achievement, to attaining new spiritual heights, don’t lose sight of the goal because of the pitfalls in the road. Their thinking is that the achievement is well worth the risks.
Esav’s analysis was different because he undervalued the achievement, making it indeed not worth his while to pursue. When the Torah tells us that “Esav showed contempt for the birthright,” this is what it means. Undervaluing the spiritual goal in itself is the ultimate expression of contempt.
There is a parallel in the attitude taken by many people. Mesilas Yesharim  speaks of people who seek to make things a bit more comfortable for themselves without, G-d forbid, rejecting Torah life. They argue to themselves, however, that they really don’t need that much Gan Eden. As long as they get in, taking a back seat there isn’t the worst proposition, particularly if the alternative is a life in their mortal existence full of extra responsibility and concern. Setting more modest goals for eternity means getting the best of both worlds.
But it doesn’t! Here is why. Many of us, whether we are aware of it or not, secretly are jealous of non-Jews. How wonderful it would be, some inner voice whispers, to move along carefree without restrictions. We could eat what and when we wished. No worrying about mitzvos, or ever having to make a berachah. There would be nothing blocking or inhibiting us from doing as we pleased.
That inner voice lies! Are we jealous of a horse – which also does what it pleases? It eats grass that is readily available, naps where and when it wishes, and never worries about proper attire. Why are we not jealous of a horse?
Because we know that that the greatest pleasure is to be fully human! We gladly trade in the inconveniences and responsibilities for the privilege of belonging to the human race! We were created not to be content with less than we could be. A person who foregoes the opportunity to achieve spiritual achievement is not merely an average, undistinguished human. In a sense, he’s a horse!
Esav could spurn the avodah, if it meant too much trouble. We, however, understand that he was selling short his sense of what it means to be fully human.
- Based on Daas Torah, by R. Yeruchem Levovitz, Toldos, pg. 169-170 ↑
- Bereishis 25:32 ↑
- Eruvin 13b ↑
- Bereishis 25:34 ↑
- Chapter 4 ↑