The episode of Esav relinquishing his birthright has deep repercussions and bears revisiting.
Though the review is harsh, Robert Alter (The Art of Biblical Narrative, 1981) writes, “the episode makes clear that Esau is not spiritually fit to be the vehicle of divine election, the bearer of the birthright of Abraham’s seed. He is altogether too much the slave of the moment and of the body’s tyranny to become the progenitor of the people promised by divine covenant that it will have a vast historical destiny to fulfill. His selling of the birthright in the circumstances described here is in itself proof that he is not worthy to retain the birthright.”
A most damning review; the poor guy’s parched and famished, surely many of us would have struggled to rein in our emotions at that point? The midrash tells us that Esav had not just spent the morning singularly focused on the hunt but had had an action packed day, including murder and immorality.
Jacob has instinctive understanding of his brother as seen in his wording on approaching his father, Chapter 27, verse 20, in response to Isaac’s surprise to be presented with a meal so soon, “Because the Lord your G-d granted me good fortune.” Intertextually, we may be reminded of the wicked son’s words as they appear in the haggadah, ‘What is this service to you? To you and not to himself.’ He holds G-d in contempt, providing clear distinction with his words, suggesting Esav too, were it to be him that spoke, has scant regard for the path Isaac has attempted to impart.
As we read the parsha, it becomes plain that the review is well-placed.
It is indicative that on three separate occasions, the Torah comments on the choice of Esav’s spouses, taken from the Hittite tribe.
26:34: ‘When Esau was forty years old, he took to wife Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite and Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite and they were a source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebekah.’
27: 46: ‘Rebekah said to Isaac, “I am disgusted with my life because of the Hittite women. If Jacob marries a Hittite woman like these, from among the native women, what good will life be to me?”’
28: 8: ‘Esau realized that the Canaanite women displeased his father Isaac.’
We learn that the each word in the Torah has its place. Syntactically for emphasis, the Torah repeats words but rarely do we see three inclusions. It can only suggest that the Hittite culture was of such a nature as to be kept at arm’s length; proving unsettling to the soul.
Esav however is slow to catch on. In contrast, in Chayei Sarah Avraham was quick to understand the Hittite tribe. Not only does he ensure a firm financial transaction for the Cave of Machpelah, but also that his payment has Hittite witnesses (23:16).
Furthermore, in parshat Acharei Mot (Vayikra 18:24 – 25) we read that, in reference to the Hittites, G-d says, ‘…the nations that I am casting out before you defiled themselves. Thus the land became defiled…’
A word on Hittite laws:
“‘The husband, if he catches a man with his wife, is justified under Hittite law in killing them, but only in the heat of the moment.’ Clause 198 indicates that if he stops to think about it, he must bring the two before the king for the court’s decision. Interestingly, he cannot request that only one of the adulterers be killed. It’s an all or nothing decision. The king can override the angry husband’s decision and spare both.’” (Imparati, Fiorella. “Private Life Among the Hittites.” In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, 1995.)
Knee-jerk reactions were perfectly permissible under Hittite Law.
As Jews, we hold ourselves to a higher standard; we should be thinking through the ramifications of our actions. As a light unto the nations, we can ill afford to be impulsive and instead consider the long term implications.
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch writes (Horev, Chukim, Chapter 67), “Do you wish to kill the Divine in you for a moment’s pleasure?”
Isaac favored Esav because, ‘he had a taste for game’, literally, כי ציד בפיו, game was in his mouth, suggesting a running obsession. Rabbi Binyomin Forst (The Laws of Kashrut, 1999) writes, “Animal matter carries the nature of the animal and may be harmful to the spirit of man by influencing and strengthening his own animal traits.” The Zohar refers to eating as a ‘time of war’, when man, who rules over the animal kingdom, can sustain his soul and eating, more than any other mitzvah, can integrate these two opposing forces. The sages teach us that by injecting an element of Torah at each meal, we connect the two worlds. Yet it seems that Esav has no wish to subdue the animal within himself.
Psalm 128 describes a family’s ideal table:
“Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine within your house;
Your sons like olive saplings around your table.”
The distinction in the text’s cadence between Esav’s ויאכל וישת ויקם וילך, “he ate and drank and he rose and went away” and that of the tehilim above, stand in stark contrast. The olive saplings take strength from the root of the father, whilst the wife as a vine, is interpreted by Malbim as follows, “though it stands in the innermost parts of the house, it raises its branches until it reaches the roof, and shades from there the entire house.” Both require nurture. (permit me a brief aside as I recall that beautiful home in Riverdale Ave, Dublin, named by my dear late Saba זצ"ל, ‘Carmeinu’ – our vineyard). In comparison, Esav lives for instant gratification, with neither integrity nor respect for that which preceded him and the Torah, in including his abhorrent behavior here in Toldot, serves as instructive for the next generations.
I consider the many occasions on which Neil and I sat at the same table growing up, each of us noting the mores along which life should be trodden. To quote Rav Hirsch on this your 37th birthday, כ״ח בְּחֶשְׁוָן, “And when you count days and months and years and engrave ‘one’ upon the tree of your life you are not acting capriciously; you have, that one day, one month or one year, really run through one period of your life and you now stand ready for a new period.” Happy Birthday.