From Where I Stand
By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
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And he sold his birthright to Yaakov
Children grow up and go their separate ways. Even brothers.
This week we read of the birth of twins to Yitzchak and Rivkah. Yaakov and Eisav are very different from the moment they leave the womb. As they grow older, their disparate personality traits become increasingly obvious. Yaakov is the “dweller of tents,” a diligent Torah scholar, while Eisav is “a skilled hunter” and a violent man.
One day when Eisav returns from the hunt, exhausted and starving, he finds Yaakov cooking a pot of lentils. Eisav asks Yaakov for some lentils, and Yaakov offers him a deal–in return, sell me your birthright. As the firstborn twin, Eisav would have been the bechor, and at that stage in history the firstborn were chosen as ministers in Gâ€‘d’s service. Eisav accepts the offer, and the deal is done. Both parties agree, and it is a valid transaction.
Yet, when we get to the Book of Exodus (4:22) when Gâ€‘d sends Moshe to Pharaoh to redeem His people, He describes them as “B’ni bechori Yisrael”–“My son, My firstborn, Israel” and Rashi, quoting the Midrash, comments, “Here the Holy One Blessed Is He affixed His seal to the sale of the birthright which Yaakov purchased from Eisav.”
Here? Four generations later? It took Gâ€‘d so long to put His stamp of approval on a deal that was entered into hundreds of years earlier? Why only now?
The late Israeli rosh yeshiva Rav MZ Neriya answered: You can sell your birthright for beans, but you can’t buy a birthright for beans. To throw away one’s holy heritage is easy, but to claim it takes years of effort and much hard work.
He used the analogy of a war hero who earned a row of medals for bravery and courage under fire. Sadly, in his old age he was forced to sell his medals in order to survive. So someone else walks into the pawnbroker and finds these war medals for sale, buys them, and pins them to his chest. He might walk down the street, proud as a peacock. But does it have any meaning? Is there any validity whatsoever to this shameless fraud? We all know that this man is no hero. In fact, he is nothing more than a pathetic fool.
To wear the esteemed badge of honor of “My Firstborn Israel,” the Jewish People had to be worthy of the honor. It wasn’t enough that their father Yaakov had purchased the birthright from an unworthy but willing seller. The children of Yaakov needed to demonstrate that they understood what it meant to be Children of Israel.
When Yaakov bought the birthright from Eisav, it was a legal deal. One wanted the beans, one wanted the birthright. Fair and square. But did Yaakov earn that hallowed title, or was he just being a clever businessman? Was he buying it like the fellow who bought the war medals?
Generations later, when his children went through the iron furnace of the Egyptian bondage and still, with amazing faith and tenacity, kept their heritage, then they were deemed worthy of the honor of the birthright. Now, after the trial by fire, after the blood, sweat, and tears of slavery, does the great Notary on High, the heavenly Commissioner of Oaths, take out that ancient document, the yellowed parchment deed of sale cracking with age that had been waiting for generations, and put His official stamp and the wax seal on that document. And He says, “Now I am ready to affix my sacred seal. Now you are worthy of the birthright. Today you are My Son, My Firstborn, Israel.”
There’s a famous graffiti exchange that has much truth in it. Someone not too partial to our faith had scrawled “How odd of Gâ€‘d, to choose the Jews.” And one of our own responded, “No, not odd, the Jews chose Gâ€‘d.”
Being Jewish is indeed the birthright of every Jew. But it’s not enough that Gâ€‘d chose us; we must choose Gâ€‘d. We need to earn our birthright by living as Jews. Chosenness is not license to snicker or condescend to others. It is far more responsibility than privilege.
It’s not good enough that our parents and grandparents were good Jews, or that my Zayde was a rabbi or a shochet and my Bobba made the world’s best blintzes. What are we doing to earn our stripes?
Indeed, you can sell your birthright for beans, but you can’t buy a birthright for beans.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.