Parshat Toldot: Selling and Rejecting

“And Esav said to Yaakov, “Let me swallow some of this red food for I am tired.” Therefore, his name is Edom”. (Beresheit 25:30)

Esav returns from the field exhausted. Yaakov is preparing a lentil porridge. Esav asks Yaakov to give him the porridge. Yaakov offers to exchange the porridge for Esav’s rights as firstborn. Esav agrees and the birthright is transferred to Yaakov.

The Sages discuss the reason Yaakov was preparing a porridge of lentils. Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra draws an important conclusion from this aspect of the incident. He argues that Yitzchak was not wealthy. His household was forced to sustain itself with humble foods.[1]

Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam disagrees with Ibn Ezra. He argues that Yaakov’s preparation of this porridge does not indicate poverty. Yaakov was a tzadik. He had little interest in delicacies. He was content with simple foods and avoided foods, which might awaken greater appetite.[2]

It is difficult to understand this dispute. What compelled each authority to assume his respective position? This dispute appears to be the result of a more basic argument. Yaakov purchased Esav’s birthright. What, precisely, was this right? Ibn Ezra maintains that the first born traditionally inherited a larger portion of the property of the father. This explains Ibn Ezra’s assertion that Yaakov was impoverished. Esav observed that his father was not wealthy. He calculated that even a double portion of a poor man’s property was worth little. Therefore, he was willing to abandon his rights as first born.[3] From this perspective Yitzchak’s poverty was fortuitous. It is an essential element of the incident. It encouraged Esav to sell the birthright to Yaakov. The poverty might even have been providential.

Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam explains the birthright differently. He explains that traditionally the first born assumed the role of kohen or priest. Esav had no interest in devoting himself to the service of Hashem. This birthright had no value to Esav.[4] Therefore, he sold it to Yaakov. This interpretation results in Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam’s position regarding Yitzchak’s wealth. From this perspective, poverty or wealth did not play a role in Esav’s decision. There is little reason to assume that Yitzchak was impoverished.

This dispute is expressed in one addition area. The last pasuk states that Esav “sold the birthright”.[5] The term used for sold is vayevaz. This is an unusual and ambiguous term. It is interpreted by many authorities to mean “and he sold”. However, Rashi offers another interpretation. He posits that the term means “and he rejected”.[6] Why does Rashi adopt this interpretation?

Ibn Ezra understands the birthright as the privilege to inherit a larger portion of the father’s property. If this is the nature of this right, its sell cannot be viewed as immoral. It is a straightforward business calculation. Ibn Ezra interprets vayevaz to mean “and he sold”. This translation does not involve any moral judgement of Esav’s decision.

However, Rashi agrees with Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam. He explains that the firstborn was destined to be a kohen.[7] The abandonment of this right is a moral decision. It is a rejection or belittlement of a spiritual opportunity. Therefore, Rashi interprets vayevaz to mean rejection. This implies a moral judgement of Esav’s action.

“This is because Avraham obeyed My voice. And he observed My commandments, decrees and laws.” (Beresheit 26:5)

As explained above, Hashem admonished Yitzchak to remain in Gerrar. He forbade Yitzchak from traveling to Egypt. Then the Almighty assured Yitzchak that He would be with him. He told Yitzchak that He would make his descendents into a great nation. They would take possession of the land of Canaan. Finally, Hashem told Yitzchak that He would do these things because of the righteousness of Avraham.

Gershonides makes an important observation. It is clear from our passage that the extraordinary degree of providence experienced by Yitzchak was a consequence of the Almighty’s relationship with Avraham. Yitzchak is one of the forefathers. He was a great tzadik – a righteous person. Nonetheless, at this juncture, he had not achieved the spiritual perfection of his father. Therefore, his providential relationship with the Almighty was not solely predicated upon his own achievements. It was a consequence of the righteousness of Avraham.[8]

Now, we can answer our questions. Could not the Almighty have made Yitzchak wealthy in Egypt? Why was it necessary for Yitzchak to remain in Gerrar in order to benefit from Hashem’s providence? The answer is that the Almighty is omnipotent. Of course, He could have brought about Yitzchak’s financial success even in Egypt. However, this would have required greater miracles. A higher level of providence would have been required. Yitzchak had not achieved the level of spiritual perfection needed to experience this elevated level of providence. The Divine influence rested upon him as a result of Avraham’s righteousness. Avraham’s righteousness was adequate to assure Yitzchak’s prosperity in Gerrar. In Gerrar, less providential intervention was required. A higher level of providence was required to achieve success in Egypt. Yitzchak had not reached the spiritual perfection requisite for this degree of providence.

This also explains Yitzchak’s initial suffering at the hands of the Pelishtim. The Almighty’s providence over Yitzchak produced his success. However, his relationship with the Almighty was not great enough to protect him from the natural jealousy and hatred of the Pelishtim. Ultimately, this hatred was overcome. The Pelishtim made peace with Yitzchak. Avimelech, himself, appealed to Yitzchak to enter into a treaty. However, this required Yitzchak’s perseverance through the initial persecutions.

“Nations will serve you, and governments will bow to you. You will be a master over your brother, and the brothers of your mother will bow to you. Those that curse you will be cursed, and those that bless you will be blessed.” (Beresheit 27:29)

When Yitzchak gave this blessing to Yaakov, he believed he was blessing his older son, Esav. Yitzchak did not recognize the depth of Esav’s evil. Yet, he could not have failed to detect the uncommon righteousness of Yaakov. Why would Yitzchak bless Esav with sovereignty over Yaakov? Yitzchak must have recognized that Yaakov was the more righteous of his two sons.

Sforno explains that Yitzchak believed that Esav’s domination would be a blessing for both children and their descendants. Yitzchak perceived Esav as materialistic, but good-hearted. His benevolent governance over Yaakov would free his younger brother, and his descendants, from toil in the mundane. Esav would be responsible for ensuring that Yaakov could pursue wisdom and truth, unencumbered by this burden.[9]

“And Esav saw that the daughters of Canaan were displeasing In the eyes of Yitzchak, his father. And Esav went to Ylshmael and he took Machalat, the daughter of Ylshmael, the son of Avraham, the sister of N’vayot, In addition to his wives, to be to him a wife.” (Beresheit 28:8-9)

These pesukim explain that Esav recognized that Yitzchak did not approve of his wives because of their heathen practices. In order to win his father’s approval, Esav married Machalat, the daughter of Yishmael, and the granddaughter of Avraham.

These pesukim provide an important insight into the psychology of the rasha – the wicked person. This misguided individual will often pursue objectives that are overtly evil. Lack of knowledge and spiritual perfection cloud such an individual’s vision of morality. However, the greater tragedy is that this misguided individual, even when in pursuit of a worthy objective, often fails. The base instincts exert control over the rasha and subvert the individual’s efforts to pursue a moral objective.

Esav recognized that his wives were evil. They were a source of torment to his father, Yitzchak. If Esav had been able to evaluate this dilemma objectively, he would have separated himself from these wives. Like his brother, Yaakov, he would have sought a wife from the Padan Aram. The people of that community demonstrated a higher level of moral behavior. Yet Esav, despite his determination to please his father, could not take either of these steps. Rather than eliminating his unacceptable wives, he attempted to compensate by seeking a more appropriate partner. However, he could not follow the example of Yaakov and turn to the community of Padan Aram. Instead, he married Machalat. Machalat had pedigree, but she lacked true quality. Esav could simply not imagine identifying and forming a relationship with a woman of true moral character.

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[1] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 25:32.

[2] Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 25:29.

[3] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 25:32.

[4] Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 25:31.

[5] Sefer Beresheit 25:34.

[6] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 25:34.

[7] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 25:32.

[8] Gershonides, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, Page 168.

[9] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 27:29.