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Today’s Torah reading is one of the better-known stories- the selling by Esau of his birthright and the “stealing” of his first-born blessing. We start out with Isaac praying for Rebecca, who is barren. God gives her twins, Esau and Jacob, who he promises will grow into two nations, which become Edom and Israel. Jacob is the younger, and the difference between these fraternal twins couldn’t be greater: Esau is a hunter, a man of hedonistic qualities and rash, emotional decisions whereas Jacob is a quiet, studious man who is a shepherd.
To me, the spiritual difference is evident in the physical means of how they each survived: Esau made his living by the taking of life and Jacob by the fostering and caring for life.
We all know the story: Esau comes out of the field, hungry to exhaustion, and Jacob has stew cooking. Esau asks for stew, Jacob offers it in exchange for the birthright of the firstborn, which Esau easily surrenders to him. Later, when it came time for Isaac to bless his sons, prodded by his mother, Rebecca, Jacob dresses up as Esau and fools his father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn. Esau comes to his father directly after Jacob leaves, and they both realize what has been done. With Esau crying bitterly, Isaac finds a blessing for Esau, who lets it be known that once his father dies, he will avenge himself on Jacob.
Rebecca, in order to protect her son, tells Isaac that she can’t stand the Hittite wives Esau has taken and asks Isaac to send Jacob to get a wife from their own people, which Isaac does by sending Jacob to his uncle Bethuel’s to get a wife from Jacob’s maternal grandfather’s house, the house of Laban.
The point I make often regarding this parashah is that Jacob didn’t really steal the blessing. We have to remember that he deserved the blessing of the firstborn because Esau sold it to him.
We see throughout the life of Jacob, whose name means to supplant, a tendency to lie. He lied to his father to receive the blessing, then later Laban lies to him to receive a wife, then lies to him regarding his payment, and finally, Rachael lies to her father about the household gods she stole when they left. One lie leads to another lie, which leads to more lies.
I would really like to take a ride with Mr. Peabody and Sherman in the Way-Back Machine to see what would have happened if Jacob had come clean with Isaac about this whole blessing and birthright thing.
What if Jacob had just gone up to his father and said, “Father, your son Esau sold me his birthright so I am here to ask for the blessing of the firstborn, which is now rightly mine.”? Would Isaac have honored that sale? Would the blessing have been different, and would Isaac have saved a little something better for Esau knowing what had happened?
These are interesting questions that we will never know the answer to, but the point remains that because Jacob owned the birthright of the firstborn, he also owned the blessing that goes with it. So, even though he received it through trickery, it was, still and all, his by right.
The Chumash comment on the selling of Esau’s birthright is that Jacob knew Esau wouldn’t die without the stew and was really only testing him to see how important his birthright was to him. In those days, the firstborn was the spiritual leader of the family, and as such should be compassionate, wise and patient. Esau was none of these, and when Jacob had the opportunity to see if Esau really was able to make sound decisions, and Esau failed to do so Jacob took up the mantle of the spiritual leader of the family by buying that right from his brother.
How many times have we let our emotional state of mind influence our decisions? If you are a leader, either in a business, family or a religious environment, do you have the qualities of leadership that are needed for that position? And if you aren’t in charge, just as with Jacob, if the opportunity comes up for you to take charge of a leadership position, are you willing to take on that obligation?
You may be asking where you can find what these leadership qualities are, and I submit to you they are in the Bible. In Exodus, Titus, 1 Timothy and many other places we can find references to what qualities a leader should possess. In general, they are patience, wisdom, a lover of justice, a person not influenced by money, compassionate, able to manage his own family (well-behaved children) and a lover of God’s word.
In the past, the firstborn was entitled (by birth) to lead the family, economically and spiritually, but today that no longer holds true. Today we are all able to take positions of responsibility in our family, as well as in our careers. Some people are placed in positions of authority by reason of their work history, some by their actions in battle, and others simply because they stayed out of trouble long enough to be promoted by the system.
I know of people who have stated they don’t know why they don’t receive more responsibility, and when I suggest they show they are capable of handling more, they say, “Why should I do more work without getting more pay?” Here they are, refusing to demonstrate their ability to do more, and complaining that they aren’t promoted! They just don’t get it- who will put someone in a position of authority without that person first showing they are able to perform in that position?
The lesson today for each of us, those who believe in God, Messiah and who honor the Torah, is that we must first demonstrate the qualities of holiness before we can expect anyone else to want to follow us by accepting God and Messiah so that through them they can attain salvation. We cannot run a ministry, or a business, a department or our own family if we do not live up to the standards of behavior God expects of us.
Jacob demonstrated the qualities that the firstborn should have, qualities which Esau did not have, and he took it upon himself to place himself in that position. And we know that God accepted this because God shows himself to Jacob and confirms that he will bless Jacob with the same promises he made to Abraham and Isaac.
We each need to know what God expects from us by reading the Bible and shaping ourselves into the image of what God wants a leader to be. Even if we aren’t in leadership now, we won’t ever get the chance if we don’t show that we are able to do the job. I have been blessed by being asked, in both places where I have worshiped, to be on their Council of Elders. That position, as I am sure most of you know, is not one that is solicited but one that is offered because the existing Council members recognize the leadership and spiritual abilities of someone. I don’t say this to brag but as an example of why being the best we can be in how we honor God will result in our being honored by godly people, and allow us to receive a “blessing of the firstborn” in our own right.
Know what God expects of you and do what you can to live up to that image of a godly person. When we do what God wants of us, everything else in our life falls into place and we receive the blessings that God has for us.