November 8th-9th, 2002
4 Kislev, 5763
This is a REVISED edition of the Insights from 5762.
I remember well this particular classroom exchange, for it was
less--a number of times during my first year studying in yeshiva.
While learning Chumash (the Five Books) with our wonderful teacher and
mentor, Rabbi Beryl Gershenfeld, we would come upon an unfamiliar mitzvah,
or perhaps we would get a glimpse of a new and higher level of dedication
to a mitzvah we already knew about. [Example: We all unquestioningly
accepted that it’s a nice thing to show hospitality, but when we studied
Parshas Chayei Sarah, we learned about the incredible lengths to which
Avraham went to actively search out guests to bring into his home, upon
whom he could shower kindness.]
Along with the normal joy of discovery that is part of all Torah study, we
fledgling yeshiva students would experience an ever-so-slight queasiness
at the thought of yet another rung to climb on the (endless) ladder of
Jewish spiritual growth. We would look nervously at one another, and one
of us ultimately would raise his hand. (Okay, I admit, it was yours
"Rebbie… is it true that the more we learn, the more is expected of us?"
What I meant to ask was: "Why can’t we just remain blissfully ignorant of
G-d’s real expectations of us, so as not to burden ourselves with added
"YES!," he would say, crashing his fist down on the table as he pierced
through to the essence of my question (and of our collective hesitation).
"The more we learn—and grow—the more is expected of us. It’s true. That’s
the price of being a human being. It’s much easier to be a cow."
Silence in the room, as this great rabbi’s young disciples contemplated
the bovine bliss that could have been…could still be?…theirs. Munching
away in the pasture…not much to worry about except the occasional
bothersome fly to be swatted away by a swishing tail…maybe a round or two
on the milking machine. Doesn’t sound half bad…
Rabbi G. awakened us from our daze with his passionate (and memorable)
summation, and his final word on the subject (until the next time we
brought it up):
"BUT IT’S MUCH BETTER TO BE A HUMAN BEING!"
Don’t many of us often experience this type of internal tug-of-war? On the
one side, we all have a desire to grow as people (and as Jews), to assume
greater responsibilities and attempt to reach greater levels of
observance. (Last-minute thoughts of repentance as the sun sets on Yom
Kippur confirm this hidden spiritual potential inside of us…before many of
us forget all about it in the gorging after the fast!) In short, we have a
desire to live up to the lofty calling of a human being, created in the
image of G-d and endowed with free will to bring ourselves close to His
Yet, on the other side, we experience an obstinate holding back--an inner
resistance to the bother and burden of striving for self-actualization, a
desire to cling to the comforts of anonymity and to abjure responsibility,
to follow a path of pure and uncomplicated physicality. A cow in the
pasture…a paperback reader on a Polynesian island. Pick your own escape
We see this same startling duality in our ancestors in the Book of
Numbers. The very same Jewish people who enthusiastically followed Moshe
out of Egypt, and accepted the covenant of G-d at Mt. Sinai, are crying
out that they can’t bear eating the manna anymore…or living under the
close Divine scrutiny of their behavior that went along with it. (Our
Sages say that how far one had to wander to collect his daily portion
depended on his spiritual level…so we had constant heavenly monitoring,
and regular feedback.) "We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt, free of
charge…" they complained. (Numbers: 11, 5) The Midrash profoundly
elucidates their real intention in hankering after the "good old days" (!)
of Egyptian bondage: to be "free" of the charge (i.e., the yoke) of G-d’s
"It’s easier to be a cow," they were saying--even an enslaved one,
tethered to a cruel master--than to accept the challenges of spiritual
growth. Indeed, this message is intoned by a voice inside of every one of
us, and that voice is termed, the yetzer ha’ra (evil inclination), by our
great Sages. It is a voice that wants instant gratification, that longs
only and always to be free--to pay (or heed) no charge.
"But it’s better to be a human being," says our wiser mentor--the internal
voice of the yetzer tov (good inclination), 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.
This week’s parsha affords us a clear picture of these two alternative
strivings in a person, and the different life-paths they can lead to. They
are embodied in the persons of the two brothers, Esav and Ya’akov. Esav,
the firstborn, "a man of the field," a lover of the thrill of hunting and
killing, comes in from his exertions one day to find his twin brother,
Ya’akov, described by the Torah 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
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
in this parsha had nothing to do with any extra financial inheritance or
material privilege. Rather, it was a spiritual charge: the one who assumed
the responsibility of the birthright had to bring offerings to G-d to gain
atonement on behalf of the whole family (similar to the role of the kohen
who would serve in the Temple in later times).
More specifically, the carrier of the birthright in this particular family
would be expected to shoulder the responsibility of carrying on the
tradition of "doing charity and justice," of perpetuating the spiritual
mission of Avraham and Yitzchak--forebears of
G-d’s chosen people. The mission of becoming a "light unto the nations,"
through adhering to G-d’s radiant Torah.
For this lofty task, Ya’akov knew that Esav was clearly unfit (as did
Rivka, their mother). Esav’s response to Ya’akov--Look, I am going to
die--showed that he was uninterested in the demands and responsibilities
of the birthright. Whether one understands those words as loss of faith in
the eternal existence of the soul (as some commentaries do), or merely as
his hunch that a hazardous life of hunting might bring him to a premature
departure from this world, it is clear from the context that Esav had no
interest in assuming 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" (priest), Esav responded,
"I am going to die…through the birthright itself!" In other words, Esav
did not believe he could survive the lofty moral demands--the Divine
scrutiny--that would come with the territory.
Esav clearly had a passionate nature, and a great longing for the physical
pleasures of the world (while Ya’akov was more naturally drawn to the
contemplative life). Physicality, in and of itself, is not "bad," in the
Torah’s view; in fact, to sanctify and elevate (not to 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, he had tremendous potential: he could have striven to use
his passions to serve G-d, in keeping with the unique strengths of his
nature. He could have been "out there in the world" more than Ya’akov, but
still and always guided by the dictates of his heritage, and emulating the
overarching awe of G-d that his father personified.
However, he consciously chose to listen only to the dictates of his
physical nature, to shun the demands and exertions of spiritual
self-actualization. This is what the Torah is condemning about Esav--not
his passionate nature per se. (King David had a similarly passionate
nature, our Sages tell us, and he channeled it into composing his fervent
psalms and later, to waging wars against Israel’s enemies.) This is why,
at the very end of the scene quoted above, 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
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, more appropriately in his
case, a dangerously wild ox) was too tempting a path. Off with all yokes!
Isn’t it easier to serve the impetuous demands of our physicality, than to
follow the Torah’s guidance on how to elevate that physicality through
study and performance of mitzvos? Isn’t it easier to always follow the
path of least resistance, to obey the powerful inner urgings we
Yes, it is—as both our Sages and (l’havdil) Freud in more modern times,
have taught us. Munching in the pasture (or pursuing every Elsie across
the clover) is less stressful, and affords more "thrills" than the human
being’s essential task of climbing a ladder to reach holiness. But the
rewards, in the long run, are also far less. True human satisfaction lies
in growth and accomplishment, in pursuing transcendent meaning. "…be glad
of heart, you who seek Hashem," we say in our morning prayers. Those who
seek Hashem, who strive to grow in their love and awe of G-d and
dedication to His Torah, are the truly glad of heart. It is the Esavs of
the world who die famished…despite (or, because of) their lifelong goal of
attaining only physical satisfactions.
Please note that dedication to spirituality, in Jewish terms, does not
mean giving up the legitimate pleasures of this world by any means.
Climbing the ladder doesn’t mean that you have to forsake all
clover-munching. In fact, you’ll need to munch to have strength for the
journey. We need to enjoy this magnificent world G-d gave us if we are
going to serve Him with all our heart, and become the great people we are
meant to be. So eat and drink (with blessings beforehand to sanctify what
could turn merely into an animal act), and enjoy every delicious meal that
G-d has given you. (Especially on the Sabbath, our weekly day of
The difference between us and the cows, though, is that we have that
exciting spiritual ladder to climb even after the table (or clover) is
Believe me, I know that voice inside that sighs (or bleats) for endless
days of sun and clover, and no yoke. We all do. It’s the voice of Esav…of
the yetzer ha’ra. It’s not meant to be silenced, but it certainly has to
be educated and elevated. And that’s the job of our wiser voice, our
yetzer tov, nourished by our Torah learning. That voice tells us that’s
it’s ultimately better to be a human being than a cow…and it is very best
of all to have the privilege of being a Jew and striving to keep all of G-d’s
Another thing to remember: G-d doesn’t expect anything more…or less…of
ourselves in this world than we are truly capable of.
Esav didn’t listen enough to that other voice, to the yetzer tov…and he
eventually came to regret it. Now, had he been in my Chumash class with
Rabbi Gershenfeld (or had he read this parsha sheet!!), well, then, who
knows how he might have turned out?! We have the chance to do better, an d
I hope and pray that we can all learn from his costly mistake.
My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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