In this parashah we have one of the best known stories of the Bible, the selling of the birthright.
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This parashah begins by telling us that Isaac prayed to Adonai for Rebecca to no longer be barren. God granted his wish and she gave birth to Esau and Jacob. Esau was firstborn, and became a hunter, whereas Jacob was a shepherd and more studious. Isaac loved Esau for the game he brought to him, and Rebecca loved Jacob. This doesn’t mean the parents only loved one child, but they definitely had favorites.
One day after hunting and being ravenous, Esau comes in and happens upon Jacob making a lentil stew. Now, Esau was a man who today we might call the poster boy for existentialism: he was all about himself and the moment, with no regard for what might happen later. When Esau told Jacob without some of that stew he would die of hunger, Jacob (being somewhat devious) saw the opportunity to gain the birthright, so Jacob offered Esau a trade: he would give Esau food if Esau sold Jacob the birthright of the firstborn. Esau, without hesitating, agreed.
Later, when Isaac told Esau that it was time for him to receive the blessing of the firstborn, he asked Esau to get fresh game and make it for him so he could eat of it and then give Esau the blessing. Rebecca overheard and had Jacob take Esau’s place, dressing him in Esau’s clothes and putting sheepskin on his hands and neck to fool Isaac, who by then was blind. The ruse worked and Jacob received the blessing for the firstborn; later, Esau comes in for the blessing but it is too late, and Isaac gives a second-in-line blessing to Esau.
Esau, understandably enough given his rash and hasty nature, vowed to kill Jacob as soon as Isaac dies, so Rebecca (hearing of this) has Isaac send Jacob to her brother, Laban, to find a wife. This was in the hope that after time Esau’s anger would subside, knowing that he was a man of immediacy and that anything long-term was not in his nature.
The parashah ends with Esau, who had wives from the local people, being told that his parents wanted him to have wives from their own people, so what did he do? He married descendants of Ishmael!
One thing we can say about Esau- he just didn’t get it!
Regarding the selling of the birthright, it is true that Jacob could have given Esau food just because he is his brother, and in many Bible’s it seems to be implied that by making Esau sell his birthright in order to get food, what Jacob did was unjust. Yet, the Torah says that Esau hated his birthright, so even though what Jacob did was questionable, what Esau did was worse in that he had no respect for the responsibilities of the position he was to inherit.
And in many Bibles I have seen, the paragraph about Isaac giving the blessing is titled something along the lines of “Jacob steals the blessing of the firstborn.”
In my opinion, even though asking Esau to sell his birthright might be somewhat underhanded, Jacob did not steal the blessing.
I would say what Jacob did might also have been for the good of the nation, for it was clear to Jacob, as to Rebecca, that Esau would not be a good patriarch and might fall short of the proper worship of God. Isaac seems to have been clueless as to Esau’s true nature, even after Esau married out of the family to women of the local, pagan community, which was further proof of his disregard for doing what was right.
So, maybe, what Jacob did when he asked to buy the birthright was not really for his own good, but for the good of the family?
As for the stealing of the blessing, well… how could he steal what was his, by right? He was now the firstborn, so he was entitled to the blessing of the firstborn. I believe it was necessary to fool Isaac because Isaac so loved Esau he may have refused to give Jacob the blessing he was legally and morally entitled to.
What we learn from this story, as we have seen before and will see throughout the Tanakh, is that the greatest heroes of Judaism were, when it comes down to it, just regular people. They lied, they cheated, they used subterfuge, and they sinned- often. They were not some holier-than-thou saintly paragon of righteousness. They were plain folk, just like you and me.
And that is great news!
It means that if God can use ordinary people to achieve such wondrous results, then there is hope that we, too, can do wonderful things for the glory of God. All we need is to be faithful and try our best to do what pleases God. We know that we will fail, often, but the Tanakh shows us that no matter how often we fail to follow God’s instructions, we can always be returned to righteousness if we repent, ask forgiveness, maintain our faith and keep trying to be better.
I will end with this, which is what I often say: We can never be sinless, but we can always sin less.
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Until next time, L’hitraot and Shabbat Shalom!