In Parsha Toldot, we read one of the most fascinating and mystifying accounts in the five books of Moses. Isaac, Abraham’s son and the second forefather, is growing old and must convey his blessing to the next generation – to his son that will be the heir and final forefather. In Isaac’s mind, that son will be Esau, twin and seconds-older brother of Jacob.
It’s hard to understand why Isaac favored Esau. Jacob is described as a moral and righteous person—a man of spirit; Esau was grounded firmly in the material world—a hunter, a man of flesh. The distinction between the two is most evident in their discussion early on in the parsha about the birthright. The birthright was Jacob’s great aspiration. He sought it before he was even born, as he emerged from Rebecca’s womb with his hand on Esau’s heel, to prevent Esau from being the first born and thus the presumptive heir to the birthright.
One day when Esau had returned from an exhausting day in the field, he asked Jacob to prepare him lentil soup. Jacob, ever mindful of his father’s age and the impending inheritance, and knowing the great value Esau placed on worldly pleasures and immediate gratification, saw an opening: “Sell me your birthright, and I will prepare for you that food.” Esau: “look I am going to die, so of what use is a birthright.” Jacob made Esau swear that he was conveying the birthright, and then gave Esau the soup. The birthright was now Jacob’s—at least in the eyes of the two brothers.
This section is understood by some commentators to mean that Esau was literally famished and believed he would die if he did not eat, which is why he was so ready to part with it. But there’s another way to understand it. As a man of the flesh, Esau saw little value in an inheritance that consisted of a blessing, and a bowl of soup to sate his burning appetite was easily worth more than an inheritance he could not see, touch, nor derive any personal benefit from: “May god bless you, make you fruitful and make you numerous…may he grant you the blessing of Abraham to you and to your offspring with you.” Jacob fought for that inheritance—he struggled for it with his brother in the womb, he bargained for it with his brother in the tent, and he even deceived his father to obtain it.
Jacob understood the value of the blessing because he looked at the longview beyond the limits of his desires, personal interests and life. Esau hunted his game, ate his food, and lived solely for the present because eventually he was going to die, and what came after was of little consequence to him. Jacob saw the inheritance, the birthright as an eternal idea that could transcend the temporal, an idea that could impact the world long after he died. Indeed, Jacob was the father of Israel, a nation that forever changed the concepts of ethics, justice, and spirituality; a nation that today speaks the same language, adheres to the same customs, and inhabits the same land as those mentioned in the five books of moses. Esau on the other hand, is recognized as the father of the edomites, a people that disappeared from history in the 1st century CE.