Rabbi Eldad Zamir
Former shaliach in Cape Town (1997 -1998)
Currently Senior Instructor at the Nativ ’Giyur” program in the IDF
Joe is having a mid-life crisis, so he decides to try enrolling in a monastery. When he arrives, they inform him of the rules: Each person is allowed to speak only two words per year.
One year goes by and Joe is waiting to say something. Finally, he is approached by the head monk who invites him to speak. “Bed hard,” Joe says deliberately. To his pleasant surprise, the next day a new bed has been delivered to Joe’s room.
Another year goes by. Joe is doing everything to control himself and abide by the “no speak” rule. Then the magic moment arrives; he’s invited to say two words. “Food salty,” says Joe. The next day, Joe is served special low-sodium meals.
Another year goes by. Joe decides he can’t take it anymore. He wants to return to his life in the work day world. The monk approaches and invites him to speak. “I quit,” says Joe.
“I’m not surprised,” says the monk. “You’ve been complaining ever since you got here!”
Of all types of sibling rivalry, probably the most intense is with twin boys. Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac and Rebecca, began struggling even inside the womb! At birth, they fought to see who would get out first. And they grew up competing for the attention of their father, Isaac, to see who would inherit the crown of Jewish leadership.
The Torah (Genesis 25:29-34) describes a key incident:
One day Jacob was cooking lentil stew, and Esau came in hungry from the field. Esau declared, “I’m tired and hungry. I beg you to feed me that red stew!” Jacob said, “In exchange, sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “Behold, I am dying, so what good is this birthright anyway?!” So Esau agreed to sell the birthright. Jacob gave him bread and lentil stew. Esau ate and drank, and went on his way, hating the birthright.
Rabbi Shraga Simmons raises an obvious question: Why would Jacob take such unfair advantage of his hungry brother?
There was no unfair advantage because Esau didn’t want the birthright in the first place. The birthright primarily entailed spiritual, rather than material, wealth. And in addition to the birthright privileges, there came many responsibilities as well, such as being a role model for the Jewish nation. Esau wanted the easy life; he wasn’t looking for more responsibility! That’s why the Torah says that he “hated the birthright.”
But this doesn’t really answer the question. If Esau was in fact starving to death, then how could Jacob have forced him into a deal? Jewish law clearly states that a person is not bound by agreements made under the threat of life-and-death!
The answer is revealed by a careful reading of verses: “Jacob gave him bread and lentil stew.” Jacob first gave Esau bread, so that he would satisfy his urgent hunger and be removed from the status of “starving to death.” Only then did Jacob give him the lentil stew, which Esau – by accepting it – sealed the deal, fair and square.
On a deeper level, there is another way to understand Esau’s statement, “I’m going to die anyway.” Esau is revealing his philosophy of life: “The world begins when I’m born, and ends when I die. So who needs to be concerned about intangibles like a ‘spiritual birthright.’ I’ll take the stew now and be happy!” In fact, the Midrash says that after finalizing the deal, Esau actually mocked Jacob’s stupidity. “I got a hot bowl of soup and you got some abstract future reward!” laughed Esau.
Esau is a man driven by physical desire. His concern is only with the here and now. He demands instant gratification. He seeks physical pleasure and comfort, because for him, the pleasures of the body are all there is in life. This is reflected through his actions:
1. Esau says “feed me that red stew.” He is so hedonistic that he doesn’t even want to expend the effort of lifting the bowl himself. “Just pour it down my throat,” he tells Jacob.
2. Esau refers to the stew as “red stuff.” He is attracted to its bright, colorful packaging. The inner content is less important; he likes the way it looks from a superficial, sensual perspective.
3. Esau is so stricken by desires that he is even willing to consume red lentil stew. We all know that lentils are red when raw – and brown when cooked. This pot was not even half-done, yet Esau has to have it NOW!
Every human being is comprised of two components – the physical (body) and the spiritual (soul). Each part needs to be nourished and sustained; yet each achieves this through very different means. The body seeks comfort and immediate gratification: food, sleep, money, sex. The soul seeks longer-lasting, eternal pleasures: meaning, love, good deeds, and connection to God.
The Talmud says: “Who is the wise person? He who sees the future.” This ability to consider our long-term, spiritual consequences is what distinguishes the mature from the immature. A child cannot predict that eating 20 sweets now will lead to a stomach ache later. A father may not see that working overtime can lead to irreparable disconnection from his wife and children.
The Jewish patriarchs might have been known as “Abraham, Isaac and Esau.” But alas, Esau lost the struggle between body and soul. So instead, for thousands of years and until today, millions of Jews pray to the God of “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
Today, each of us is fighting Esau’s battle. Body versus Soul. The multi-billion-dollar media machine is constantly enticing us to buy into the lifestyle of “Instantaneous-ism.” Between fast-food restaurants, disposable cameras and on-line banking, we have become accustomed to a world where immediacy is the norm. And the affect is that we’ve lost our sense of perspective.
Marketing experts are smart. They don’t want us to grow up. They want us to remain childish in our demand for toys and games and instant fun. Because if we were to mature, our impulsive, ego-driven buying would be greatly reduced!
To win the battle, we must be pro-active in undertaking spiritual activities. Something as simple as saying a blessing over our food turns a “physical” act into a spiritual experience. We put our actions into context, and reflect on the deeper aspect behind the food. The mere fact that we pause is a counter-balance to the instantaneous urge.
Rabbi Alexander Ziskind (19th century Europe) had the custom to break the Yom Kippur fast each year with bony fish. Why? Because this way he was forced to eat slowly and not gorge the food. In the throes of hunger, the rabbi was determined that his soul maintain control over his body.
It is one’s ability to moderate (not squash, but limit) the body’s needs that gives us the freedom to pursue the needs of the soul. Because when all is said and done, our lives are only as good as the soul we’ve looked after.
Next time you’re at a funeral, listen closely to the eulogy: he was a devoted parent, he donated money to help build a hospital, he cared for others, and he was loyal to his faith. You will never hear about what kind of car he drove, how many different restaurants he tried, or how much money he wisely invested. At that moment of everlasting truth, there is no question what is truly important.
Now we can understand more deeply why Esau “went on his way, despising the birthright.” Subconsciously Esau knew he sabotaged his own potential for greatness. And now in order to feel less guilty, he rationalized: “I didn’t want that lousy birthright, anyway!”
The Midrash says that years later, as Esau grew older, he began to reconnect with his inner voice and gain more clarity about his priorities. So Esau decided to go to Jacob with an offer to renegotiate the birthright. What was the offer? Esau was willing to part with all his wealth, in order to gain a share in the eternity of the Jewish people! What a dramatic turnaround!
Sadly, the Midrash continues: When Esau’s children heard he was planning to buy something as intangible as a spiritual connection, they promptly put a stop to his plans. “Forget it, Dad,” they said, “We’re not letting you spend our inheritance money!”
Understandably, Esau was disappointed in his children’s attitude. And then he realized where they’d learned it from…
The Midrash concludes that upon his death, Esau’s head rolled into the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where it was buried along with Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca. Esau was not evil; he was just confused. His head was worthy of burial with the founders of the Jewish people. The desires of his body, however, proved to be his undoing. It caused him to be cut off from eternity.
What is the lesson for us today? Keep your eye on the ball. Acquire wisdom. Know exactly what you’re living for. Keep your material desires in check. Beware of the “instantaneous” thrill.
This takes concentration and effort. Our actions today, and the choices we make, affect not only our own lives, but influence generations to come. The bottom line: know when to walk away from an “attractive deal” that may haunt you for a lifetime … and beyond.