November 16th-17th, 2001
2 Kislev, 5762
I remember well this particular exchange, for it was repeated--more or less--a number of times during my first year in yeshiva.
In the course of learning Chumash (the Five Books) with our wonderful teacher and mentor, Rabbi Gershenfeld, we’d encounter an unfamiliar mitzvah, some previously unimagined obligation to G-d (or level of expected exactitude in an obligation we already knew about). Along with the normal joy of discovery that is part of all Torah study, we fledgling yeshiva students would feel an ever-so-slight queasiness at the thought of having to climb yet another rung on the ladder of Jewish spiritual growth. One of us would nervously raise his hand. (Okay, it was usually me.)
"Rebbie… isn’t it true that the more we learn, the more that’s expected of us?" (Translation: "Wouldn’t it be much safer to remain ignorant of the Torah’s expectations, than to know the real deal…and risk falling short and being held accountable?")
"You’re right," he would say, knocking his fist down on the table. "That’s the price of being a human being (and a Jew). It’s much easier to be a cow."
Pause. Silence in the room, as the assembled disciples wistfully contemplate a life of untainted bovine bliss…
"But," Rabbi G. concluded, "It’s much better to be a human being!"
Don’t many of us often experience this internal tug-of-war on some level? On one side, the desire to grow, to take on moral and spiritual challenges, to assume a higher level of responsibility (be it in mitzvah observance or in some other context). In short, to live up to the calling of a human being. On the other side, we experience an obstinate holding back--a resistance to the bother and burden of striving for self-actualization, a desire to cling to the comforts of anonymity or to follow a path of pure and uncomplicated physicality. Munching all day in the pasture…swinging the tail to drive away an occasional fly. (Sounds good.)
Didn’t the Jewish people (in the Book of Numbers) cry out that they couldn’t bear the manna anymore…and the close Divine scrutiny of their behavior that went along with it? "We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt, free of charge…" they complained. The Midrash elucidates their real intention in hankering after the "good old days" (!) of Egyptian bondage: to be "free" of the yoke of the commandments.
"It’s easier to be a cow (even if firmly tethered)," says the callow youth inside of us--or the yetzer ha’ra (evil inclination), as our Sages termed that voice. "But it’s better to be a human being," says the wise teacher--the voice of the yetzer tov, which Rabbi Aharon Feldman defines as a person’s "innate drive to seek out the meaning of his life, and, ultimately to seek closeness to G-d" (The Juggler and The King, pp. 3-4)
This week’s parsha affords us a clear picture of these two alternative paths in life, embodied in the persons of the two brothers, Esav and Ya’akov. Esav, the firstborn, "a man of the field," comes in from his exertions one day to find his twin brother, Ya’akov, described as "a wholesome man, abiding in tents [of study]," cooking a stew. Famished, Esav demands to be fed "some of that red, red stuff." Ya’akov responds by asking Esav to sell him "the birthright." Here is how the Torah recounts Esav’s response to the offer.
"And Esav said, ‘Look, I am going to die, so of what use to me is a birthright?’
Ya’akov said, ‘Swear to me, as this day"; he swore to him and sold his
birthright to Ya’akov. Ya’akov gave Esav bread and lentil stew, and he ate
and drank, got up and left; thus, Esav spurned [or, despised] the birthright." (25, 32-4)
The Midrash (and commentaries) explain that the matter of the birthright had nothing to do with an extra inheritance, or any other financial or material privilege. Rather, it was a spiritual charge: to bring offerings to gain atonement on behalf of the whole family (similar to the role of the kohen in later times). In addition, the carrier of the birthright in this noble family would be expected to shoulder the responsibility of carrying on the tradition of "doing charity and justice," continuing the spiritual mission of Avraham and Yitzchak--forebears of G-d’s chosen people.
For this lofty task, Ya’akov knew that Esav was clearly unfit. And Esav’s reaction shows that he was clearly uninterested in the demands and responsibilities of the birthright. Whether one understands his words ("Look, I am going to die…") as a declaration of his loss of faith in the eternal existence of the soul (as some do), or merely as a suspicion that his hazardous life of roaming and hunting might shorten his time in this world, it is clear that Esav himself had no interest in the birthright. Rashi understands Esav’s words in yet another way: after being informed by Ya’akov of the "prohibitions and punishments" associated with the sacred duty of filling the role of the family "kohen," Esav responded, "I am going to die…through the birthright itself!" Esav did not believe he could survive the moral demands of the position.
The point here is not so much the inherent superiority of Ya’akov’s calm pursuit of scholarship over Esav’s passionate involvement in the physical pleasures of life. Physicality, in and of itself, is not "bad," in the Torah’s view; in fact, to sanctify and elevate (not squash) our physical nature is our very purpose in being born into this physical world. Esav had a great mission in life…which, tragically, he shirked. Like all of us, Esav had tremendous potential: he could have striven to use his passions to serve G-d, in keeping with the unique strengths of his nature. However, it was his conscious choice to remain immersed in the physical and to shun the demands of self-actualization that the Torah is condemning--not his passionate nature per se. This is why, at the very end of the scene, the Torah adds an extra clause to make clear Esav’s true motivation: "thus, Esav spurned [or, despised] the birthright." Rashi elucidates: "The Torah testifies to his wickedness, that he belittled the service of the Omnipresent." (Artscroll Rashi translation.)
It was the whole idea of the service of G-d that Esav despised, not merely the "title" of birthright. To remain a cow (or far worse, a dangerously wild ox) was too tempting a path.
Isn’t it easier to blindly serve the impetuous demands of our physicality, than to follow the Torah’s (arduous) guidance on how to elevate that physicality through study and performance of mitzvos?
Yes, it is. Munching in the pasture is less stressful than climbing a ladder (or a mountain). But the rewards, in the long run, are also far less. True human satisfaction lies in growth and accomplishment. Please note also: climbing the ladder doesn’t mean that you have to forsake munching. In fact, you’ll need to munch to have strength for the journey. The difference is, you’ll be going somewhere after the table (or clover) is cleared
Believe me, I know that voice inside that sighs (or bleats) for endless days of sun and clover. The voice of Esav…But I also know there’s a wiser voice that’s worth listening to that tells us it’s better to be a human being…and best of all, to have the privilege of observing all the commandments incumbent upon a Jew. Esav didn’t listen to that latter voice, to his own eventual regret. (Had he been in my Chumash class, he probably would have.)
I hope and pray that we can.
My new e-mail address is email@example.com
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