Toledot - THE BIRTHRIGHT
THE JEWISH CODE of ethics teaches that when a man is hard-pressed and his business is in bad shape, it is wrong to take advantage of his precarious financial condition and buy him out at a cheap price. How surprising is it therefore to read in the Bible that Jacob was unmindful of this principle and pressed his brother Esau to sell the birthright for the price of a pot of pottage. We are told in the sidrah that when Esau returned from a hunting trip, tired and hungry, and said to his brother Jacob, "Let me swallow, I pray thee, some of this red, red pottage, for I am faint" (Gem 25:30), Jacob took advantage of the situation, drove a hard bargain and bought his brother's birthright.
Anti-semites have exploited this biblical episode to malign and vilify the Jew. "See!" they cry with glee. "See, this is the way the Jew does business. Even Jacob, one of their Patriarchs, was inconsiderate and unscrupulous in his dealings. He forced a famished brother to sell his birthright for a pot of soup." And, sad to say, some of our own people are mouthing this bit of slander.
Some who make these charges conveniently overlook, while others are ignorant of, a pertinent fact. The birthright did not provide Jacob with any material advantages. It merely made him the spiritual successor of his father and grandfather. That is why the spiritual-minded Jacob was eager to buy it, and why the materialistic Esau was willing to sell it.
It is not the purpose of this sermon to apologize for Jacob or to defend Jewish business practices. Regardless of what our detractors think or say, I am convinced that as a group we are at lease as honest in our dealings as are our non-Jewish neighbors. In the Watergate scandal that rocked the nation to its very foundations there were no Jews involved. What I am trying to do is to explain this biblical incident and to apply its meaning for our time.
The Bible is a book that cannot be read superficially; it has to be studied. One word will sometimes supply the background and shed the proper light on an event. In this instance the crucial word is kayom , "in this day." A careful analysis of the sentence reveals that the word is superfluous. "Sell me your birthright" would have been sufficient. What need is there for kayont ? What about "this day"? Apparently something extraordinary happened that day that spurred Jacob on to deprive Esau of the birthright. What was it? Furthermore, since when did Jacob become a cook, preparing soup for the family? The Torah describes him as a yoshev oholim , as one who continuously studied in the tent. What suddenly brought him into the kitchen to cook, of all things, lentil soup?
The explanation is to be found in the word kayom . That was a bleak and memorable day, indeed! For on that day Abraham passed away, and the world was cast into deep mourning and gloom. When the news spread, statesmen and dignitaries of many tribes came to the home of Abraham crying, "Woe to the world that lost its leader! Woe to the ship that lost in captain! " (Baba Batra 91b).
One can well imagine the shocked state of Isaac and Rebecca. The crown of their heads, the glory of their lives was gone. People from all walks of life, even strangers, thronged to pay final tribute to the greatest and most beloved figure of their generation. Everyone was there; everyone but Esau. Jacob searched for him in the crowd, but no one had seen his brother.
After the funeral, Jacob went home to prepare for the mourners meal consisting of lentils, in keeping with the tradition that mourners are to be given foods that have a round shape, to indicate that the world is like a wheel that spins, and that no one can truly console the bereaved in the early days of bereavement and sorrow (Exodus Rab. 63:14).
While Jacob was busy with that painful chore, Esau dashed in min hasadeh , "from the field" in hunting clothes, with bows and arrows on his back. On the day when many were weeping and bemoaning the great loss of the Patriarch, Esau was out in the field enjoying his favorite sport. He was unmindful and disinterested in all that had transpired on that historic day. He had worked up a voracious appetite in the forest and the field, and he wanted to eat.
Jacob, was shocked and ashamed. How could a grandson of Abraham be so brutally cold concerning the death of his grandfather? Evidently the passing of the benefactor of humanity and the spiritual teacher and guide, not only of his household but of the world. meant nothing to Esau. In that moment Jacob resolved to get the birthright-- kayom --because of what happened on that fateful day. No Esau was to succeed to the spiritual leadership of Abraham. No crass and morally callous hunter was to become the third Patriarch of a future "kingdom of priests and holy nation." And so Jacob took matters in his own hands and bought the birthright kayom , because of the unusual occurrences of that day.
We have just lived through another tragic episode that began on a crucial kayom --on the day of Yom Kippur 1973, when the State of Israel was attacked and many sons of Abraham were slaughtered. Once again Esau has revealed his true colors by his callous lack of sympathy and disinterestedness and hostility. By and large the so-called spiritual leaders of the world have responded to this wanton act of bestiality and barbarism with a shattering silence. We can only hope and pray that Jacob will step forward and evince his feelings of compassion in accordance with the dictates that the birthright imposes an him and on his descendants.