“First In First Out” Parashat Toledot 5780

Esav returns from the field after a long day of hunting[1]. His younger brother, Jacob, just happens to be stirring a pot of thick hot porridge. Esav wipes the drool from his mouth and asks Jacob for a bowl full of that porridge. Jacob is amenable, as long as Esav is willing to pay for the porridge by selling him his birthright (“bechora”). Esav says to himself [Bereishit 25:32] “What good is my birthright?” He takes an oath bequeathing it to Jacob and he gets his porridge.

The older we get, the more we should revisit the biblical stories we learnt as children. As our points of view change, so should our understanding of the Torah[2]. So this year, let’s ask ourselves a simple question: What is a birthright, or, rather, what special rights does the owner of a birthright possess? To paraphrase Esav, what good is a birthright? Perhaps the transaction was financial. The Torah [Devarim 21:17] specifies that a firstborn receives a double inheritance, twice as much as each of his younger brothers. Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, known as the Rashbam, who lived in Alsace-Lorraine in the twelfth century, quotes his father, Meir, who taught that Esav sold Jacob his future rights to a double-inheritance for an immediate payoff of porridge. Many medieval commentators quote the Rashbam’s answer but then dismiss it outright for an assortment of reasons. Rabbi Samuel David Luzzatto, also called ShaDaL, a scholar and a poet who lived in Padua in the nineteenth century, suggests that Esav sold Jacob any future blessings that he, as the first born, might receive from their father, Isaac. ShaDaL refutes his own hypothesis by noting that neither Jacob and Esav ever tell Isaac about the sale of the birthright. Both of them explicitly acknowledge to Isaac that Esav is and has always been the firstborn: When Jacob masquerades as Esav in a plot to “steal” Esav’s blessing, he tells Isaac [Bereishit 27:19] “I am Esav, your first born”[3], and Esav tells him [Bereishit 27:32] “I am your first born son, Esav”. ShaDaL suggests another interpretation, that when Esav sold Jacob his birthright, he was essentially agreeing not to forcefully eject Jacob from the Land of Canaan after the death of their father. Indeed, it is Esav, and not Jacob, who eventually leaves the Land of Canaan for the Land of Edom. Why either of them had to go into exile is unclear.

It is clear that the simple meaning of the verse – the “peshat” – is anything but simple. In this lesson, we will search for deeper meaning in the sale of Esav’s birthright, a lesson that we can take away from this story and implement into our own lives. The best place to begin is, unsurprisingly, at the beginning. Many of us learnt as young children that Esav’s birthright was no ordinary birthright. Our kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Newhouse, told us that when Esav sold Jacob his birthright, he was actually selling him the future rights to one day administer in the Beit HaMikdash. Mrs. Newhouse was actually quoting the great medieval commentator, Rashi. Until Esav sold his birthright, says Rashi, he was destined for religious leadership of the future Jewish People. By willingly selling that right for a meagre bowl of porridge, Esav was showing how little consideration he had for organized religion.

Prima facie, this explanation also has holes in it. While Jacob’s descendants did eventually serve in the Beit HaMikdash, they did not do so by virtue of their status as first born. Our Sages teach that while the first-born were originally supposed to serve in the Beit HaMikdash, G-d stripped them of their role after they worshipped the Golden Calf along with the rest of the Jewish People and transferred their role to the Kohanim. This raises a question: If the first-born never officiated in the Beit HaMikdash, does this mean that the Esav’s sale never went through and that the whole porridge-for-birthright thing was a big waste of time? Perhaps the answer to this question is “yes”.

Literally from the beginning of time, the first born son was passed over in favour of one of his younger brothers: [1] G-d chooses the offering of the younger Abel over the offering of his older brother, Cain. [2] G-d commands Abraham to expel his first-born Yishmael [Bereishit 21:12]: “For it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you”. [3] Jacob, and not Esav, becomes the third forefather. [4] Jacob strips family leadership from his first born, Reuven, and gives it to his fourth son, Judah. [5] David is chosen over all of his older brothers to become king. [6] David chooses Solomon, and not his oldest son, Adoniah, to succeed him as king. And this is only a partial list. In each of these examples, there is a common denominator: Each and every time, leadership was given not to the son that was the oldest, but to the son that was most worthy. Leadership was not granted, it was earned. So, of what good is a birthright?

In 2004, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik wrote a masterpiece of Jewish Thought called “Redemption and the Power of Man”[4]. The article compares Jewish and Christian dogma. Rabbi Soloveichik’s theory goes as follows: Christians believe that man is forever damned. He will never be able extract himself from the morass. Redemption is an undeserved gift. And so the Christian Messiah is one “whose righteousness made up for the wickedness of others, and whose own perfection redeemed the imperfections of humanity”.

According to Judaism, however, man can and must redeem himself. Man’s imperative is to elevate himself and the world around him to a condition that will enable redemption. Rabbi Soloveichik illustrates this via the lineage of the Messiah, a lineage that can only be described as “sordid”: [1] After the city of Sodom is destroyed, Abraham’s cousin, Lot, is seduced by his daughters. Each one bears him a son. One son, Moab, is the ancestor of Ruth the Moabite, the great-grandmother of King David. The other, Amon, is the ancestor of Naama the Amonite, the wife of King Solomon and the mother of Rechavam, who became king after Solomon died. [2] Judah sleeps with his daughter-in-law, Tamar, whom he mistakes for a prostitute. Tamar bears Judah a son, Peretz, whose direct descendant is King David. [3] King David sees Bathsheba sunbathing on the roof, falls in love with her, gets her pregnant, and in order to marry her has her husband sent off to war and killed. From this relationship is born the future King Solomon. And this is only a partial list.

All of these examples are links in the Davidic Dynasty, a chain leading to the eventual redemption of the Jewish People and of the world. Rabbi Soloveichik asserts that redemption is brought about by the Davidic Dynasty not despite who they were but because of who they were. “The Mashiach can rise above his family history and even his own sinfulness. He symbolizes the ability of man to defy his own past and to bring about his own redemption”.

Let’s roll Rabbi Soloveichik’s words back into the sale of the birthright: Esav was not the only person who scorned the birthright. Jacob scorned it equally. Jacob knew that his future would be determined not by who he was, but by what he did. He wants Esav to understand this, as well. He wants Esav to sell the birthright for a bowl of porridge because that is all that it is worth. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, the Rabbi of Frankfurt-em-Main in the nineteenth century, offers a fascinating explanation of the word “va’yazed” – Jacob “cooked” porridge. “Va’yazed” means to cook something for a very long time. It comes from the same root as the word “zadon”, meaning “wilful”. A wilful action is first considered – it is “cooked” in one’s mind – and only then performed. Similarly, porridge is made from oats and lentils, ingredients that are inedible while still raw. Only after they are well-cooked can they eaten. Success and good fortune, suggests Jacob to Esav, come from well-planned action and not from the status associated with a quirk of fate such as being the first one out of the womb. “First out” does not mean “first in”.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and David ben Chaya.

[1] According to our Sages in the Midrash, Esav was actually involved in far more nefarious activities.

[2] In “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster, everyone floats in the sky, with their heads at the height they will be once they reach adulthood. Instead of growing steadily upwards, people’s legs grow down toward the ground. This way, a person retains a constant point of view regardless of his age.

[3] This reveals one of the problems with the explanation of the Rashbam. According to the Rashbam, Jacob did not need to masquerade as Esav in order to appropriate his blessing. He should have told Isaac that Esav had sold him his rights to the blessing fair and square but yet he said nothing.

[4] Azure No. 16, Winter 2004

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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