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"And Esav Despised the Birthright"

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Parashat TOLeDOT





Days of Deliverance: Essays on Purim and Hanukkah


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"And Esav Despised the Birthright"

Adapted by Matan Glidai with Itiel Gold

Translated by Kaeren Fish


When we read this week's parasha, we cannot help but be amazed and astonished at Esav's ability to forego his birthright with such ease, selling it on the spur of the moment to Yaakov. How can a pot of lentil stew possibly appear to him as an appropriate trade for the respected status of the firstborn?


Rashi attempts to answer this question in light of the religious function of the birthright:


Esav said: What is the nature of this [firstborn] service?

He said to him: There are several prohibitions and punishments and death sentences involved, like the one which we have learned – "These are they that are [deserving] of death: those drunk with wine, and those whose hair is unkempt."

He said: I will end up dying as a result of it; if so, of what use is it to me?


Ramban, on the other hand, takes a different view of Esav foregoing the birthright:


The reason he agreed to the sale was because he was in constant mortal danger while hunting animals, and he would likely die while his father was still alive. But the birthright assumes its significance only after the death of the father, so of what use would the birthright be to him? And it says, "He ate and he drank and he arose and he went on his way and he despised…," for after eating and drinking he returned to the field, to his hunting, and this was the reason for him despising the birthright: for the foolish want nothing more than to eat and drink and to do as they please whenever they please, with no concern for the future.


According to this approach, Yaakov and Esav represent two completely opposite world views.  Esav's perspective focuses solely on the functional. His only guiding principle in life is, "What's in it for me?" He seeks continually to benefit himself, here and now. Considerations of personal status, responsibility, and calling are foreign to him and to his way of thinking, for they add nothing on the functional, immediate level.


Yaakov, in contrast, is characterized by an altogether different view.  His life is not a constant quest for self-gratification; rather, he aspires to spiritual, meaningful existence, reaching outside the limiting boundaries of functionality. Yaakov recognizes the inherent quality and value of the status of the birthright, and therefore he aspires to attain it – even if this involves danger, and despite the lack of short-term benefit. Yaakov is happy to assume the service of the firstborn; he does not scorn values that carry no immediately apparent real benefits.


We, too – disciples of Yaakov – have a continuous obligation to strive for a life of meaningful spiritual fulfillment that goes beyond life's functional necessities.


(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat Parashat Toledot 5758 [1997].)