Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 14 November 2015 / 2 Kislev 5776

Parshat Toldot

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
The Color of Heaven Artscroll

In this Parsha is the famous narrative of Esav’s sale of his birthright (bechora) to his younger brother Yaakov for a pot of lentils. Abarbanel finds numerous difficulties with the whole story. What exactly were the special rights of the first-born? If they were truly significant, why would Esav give them up for a mere pot of lentils? If they were not significant, why was Yaakov so anxious to obtain them, and why did he take advantage of his brother’s physical weakness at the time to purchase these rights for a ridiculously low price? He should have given his brother food without asking for anything in return; wasn’t Yaakov supposedly the paragon of honesty and virtue? If we want to say that the firstborn receives a double inheritance, this rule does not take effect until later, after the Torah is given. If we want to say that the firstborn is entitled to the honor and respect of his younger siblings, why does Yaakov want to take this away from Esav in such an underhanded manner? Finally, if the firstborn privileges are to be understood in a spiritual, not material sense, G-d could of course see to it that those advantages were bestowed on whomever He wished, as we see later on in the case of Ephriam supplanting his older brother Menashe, and David being elevated over his older siblings.

Abarbanel answers that it is clear that Yaakov had no interest in either his material inheritance or being honored and respected by Esav, as we see later on where Yaakov still addresses Esav as “my master” and refers to himself as “your servant”. Rather, Yaakov was seeking to inherit the blessing that Avraham had received from G-d, namely the unique Divine Providence, that special relationship between G-d and his progeny, which would result in their acquisition of the Land of Israel. This was the true wealth that Yitzchak would pass on to his offspring, not his herds and properties.

Yaakov knew that this spiritual inheritance could not be passed on both to him and to Esav. Esav was an inherently evil individual with no fear of G-d and no belief in Divine Providence. However, Yaakov was unsure whether Yitzchak would stick to tradition, and, because he was the firstborn, allow Esav to retain this blessing anyhow, or he would see that Yaakov, because of his righteousness and fear of G-d, would be far more deserving. He was even afraid that the blessing would pass to one of the sons of Yishmael or another one of Avraham’s progeny. As a result he calculated that it was better to somehow get Esav to part with his firstborn status willingly rather than for him to give up such a holy and precious gift.

Underlying the sale of the bechora for a pot of lentils is a much deeper understanding of the family dynamics. Yaakov understood that one of the responsibilities of the firstborn was to take over the material and spiritual leadership of the family if the father was old or incapacitated. Esav, by spending his time hunting in the fields, had essentially abrogated that role. When Esav comes in hungry from the fields and asks to be fed by Yaakov, a role reversal takes place. It is normally the job of the oldest to take care of the younger. Here it is Yaakov taking care of Esav. Essentially Yaakov is telling Esav, “If you want to take the responsibility of taking the place of our father, then fine. But if you are willing to transfer those responsibilities to me, this will be demonstrated by the act of my feeding you.” This can be inferred as well from the exact wording of the verse when Yaakov says, “Sell, as this day, your birthright to me.” What Yaakov means is that just as today I am assuming the role of the firstborn, so shall it be in the future as well. Clearly Yaakov could have shown simple kindness and given his weak and starving brother something to eat. But here was an opportunity to effect a legal transfer of the bechora whose spiritual connotation Yaakov treasured.

Esav responds by saying, “What is the bechora to me?” As far as any material benefits are concerned, he realizes that due to his lifestyle he may even die before his father and get nothing. He had no interest in assuming his father’s responsibilities and privileges which included the inheritance of G-d’s promise to Avraham. This meant nothing to him, as he had no belief in Divine Providence or the entire concept of attaching oneself to G-d. Finally, knowing that a morally degenerate individual like Esav would likely go back on his commitment, Yaakov tells Esav, “Swear to me, as this day.”As we said earlier, this choice of words is an indication that his oath to transfer the bechora would be permanent. Since we know that Yaakov and Esav were fifteen years old at this point and that Esav only mentions the sale of the bechora many years later when Yaakov deceives his father and takes Esav’s blessing, it is apparent that for all those years Esav did not regret what he did.

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