Parashat Toldot: Esav’s Folly
Legend has it that 400 years ago, local Native Americans relinquished ownership over the Island of “Manhattes” for the modern equivalent of about $1,000. In the public imagination, the infamous barter of Manhattan for worthless trinkets ranks as the worst deal in history. Even if this legend is true, this reckless exchange isn’t as laughable as Esav’s trade with his brother 3,700 years ago. To barter your status as the chosen firstborn for a plate of beans is absurd and laughable. Esav spends his entire lifetime recovering from this blunder, endlessly scheming to recover his lost status and to reverse his tragic mistake. What caused his temporary lunacy? What was Esav thinking?
Part of Esav’s mistake was that he wasn’t thinking at all. George Bernard Shaw once remarked, “Few people think more than two or three times a year. I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.” Yaakov, a tent-dweller, lives a contemplative life of introspection. By contrast, Esav, the “man of the field,” excels at hunting, but, sadly, is far too busy for profound deliberation. He was a man of action and energy, but not necessarily of wisdom or long-term vision. Esav bursts into the room hungry and hurried, exhausted from his hunting expeditions. Remarking about how tired he is, he barks at Yaakov, demanding some “red food.” Esav doesn’t even have the time to identify the food he craves—it’s just a rush of red color and a “power lunch.” In fact, he is even too busy to fully enjoy his meal. He growls at Yaakov to pour some of the red fuel down his throat, employing the term “haliteini,” which is typically reserved for feeding animals. This man of action is too hurried and too harried for an enjoyable “meal;” he just wants to refuel and return to his hunting. Eating is nothing more than a trip to the petrol station. Without time or inner calm, he can’t enjoy his food and he certainly can’t consider the long-term advantages of the status of firstborn.
Our world has become as busy and as frenetic as Esav’s carousel. Over the past generation, the pace of our routine has accelerated, and the pressure of our lives has intensified. The internet’s “communication platforms,” such as WhatsApp and social media, encourage rapid responses and lead to thoughtless and reckless communication. Even in our non-digital, human interactions we are forced to quickly “read” the other person, rather than gradually acquainting ourselves with people and appreciating the complexity of each individual. It is no wonder that easy labels or stereotypes have become so popular—they are cheap excuses for real evaluation of nuanced individuality. Why invest in actually understanding people when we can quickly assign simplistic labels? In the modern world we are far more productive and efficient, but far less successful in developing deep and true relationships. Ultimately, we all pay the heavy price of Esav, sacrificing long-term prospects for quick hits and immediate needs. Speed has come at the cost of depth, efficiency at the cost of vision. Calculating the “long term” demands time and vision—commodities that are rare in our hectic world of Esav’s “field.”
Esav’s folly stems from an additional lapse of judgement. Responding to Yaakov’s proposal he reasons, “I will die, and therefore the title of firstborn is meaningless.” At a literal level, this dismissal reflects an unhealthy attitude toward human mortality. We may be mortal and one day each of us will pass from this earth, but during our time on this planet we can dramatically improve this world for the benefit of those who will walk in our wake. Acknowledging human mortality can never undermine human potential. Esav’s fatalism blinds him to his own grand potential.
Rashi asserts a more egregious mistake in Esav’s judgement. Esav balked because he recognized that a firstborn would also officiate as a priest and could incur severe punishments for priestly malfunction. The priestly experience in the Temple is highly regulated, and penalties for missteps are often strict. Apprehensive about this danger, Esav forfeited his title and his future. Religious duty was too frightening!
Not only is Esav a coward, but he fatally misunderstands religious duty. Though religious failure may warrant punishment, religion isn’t defined as a system of punishments and penalties; rather, it enriches and elevates the human spirit. If anything, punishments reflect the grandeur of the experience. This rendezvous with G-d is so surpassing and so precious that even minor missteps are punishable. A more relaxed religious environment would compromise the gravitas of the encounter! Fixated upon the fear of punishment, Esav was unable to identify the power and the glory of religion.
When religion is presented as intimidating and fear-inducing, it is often abandoned. Fear crushes human imagination, and religion pitched upon fear rarely settles into human identity. Modern man, having braved the great challenges of the 20th century, views himself as courageous and intrepid and does not respond to fear-based religion. Two hundred years ago, Rav Yisrael Salanter, the pioneer of the Mussar movement, based his religious message upon the fear of punishment. Though it was effective in that cultural context, today it is sometimes less successful and, for some, can become counterproductive. In place of “religion of fear” it is crucial to highlight “religion of grandeur” and of empowerment.
All this stated, we shouldn’t ignore the punitive aspects of religious malfunction. In our desire to avoid a fear-based religion we cannot emulsify Judaism into a religion without costs. The concept of punishment should underscore the gravitas of a life lived in the presence of G-d, the magnitude of personal responsibility, and, consequently, the great tragedy of religious failure. Religion is a high-stakes encounter with Hashem, and we must be visionary enough and courageous enough to embrace the “power” as well as the consequences.
Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semichah and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.