“The Sale of the Birthright”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, we learn of the sale of the birthright by Esau to his twin brother Jacob.

In order to fully appreciate the role played by the birthright and the impact of its sale, it is necessary to understand the context of this episode. According to the Talmud Baba Batra 16b, the day of the sale was the day that Abraham died, and Jacob was busy preparing the traditional mourners’ meal for his father, Isaac, to eat after Abraham’s burial. Jacob, therefore, brewed a stew of round-shaped lentils, reflecting the continuity of life after the passing of a close relative.

The Torah in Genesis 25:29 relates, “Va’yah’zed Ya’akov nah’zeed, v’yah’voh Eisav min ha’sah’deh v’hoo ah’yayf,” Jacob brewed up a stew of lentils, and Esau came in from the field exhausted. Some of the commentators see the Hebrew word, “Va’yah’zed” to mean, not that Jacob cooked or brewed, but rather that by brewing the lentils, Jacob “schemed” to get Esau to relinquish his birthright. The Midrash attributes Jacob’s fierce determination to obtain the birthright to the fact that, in those days, the sacrificial service was performed by the firstborn, and Jacob could not stomach the thought that the wicked Esau would bring those sacred offerings!

The Talmud, in Baba Batra 91a-b, describes the massive mourning for Abraham. Not only were Isaac, Rebecca and Jacob weeping, but so were all the sick people whom Abraham had healed, and all those for whom Abraham had provided hospitality were in mourning as well. The great leaders of all the nations stood in the mourners’ row, and exclaimed, “Woe to the world that has lost its leader; woe to the ship that has lost its pilot.” The Torah, in Genesis 25:7-9, reports that even Ishmael, who had repented, mourned his great father and assisted in his burial.

Despite the massive funeral, the Midrash maintains that Esau, who was in the field, was missing. Several sources assert that Esau committed five heinous crimes that day, among which were slaying the great hunter Nimrod after a long, ongoing, personal feud, and ravishing a betrothed maiden in the field.

Another Midrash claims that when Esau learned why Jacob was preparing the lentils, he exclaimed: “If judgment has been able to overtake that righteous man [Abraham], who did not reach the longevity of Adam or of Noah, then there could be neither reward nor resurrection.” The Midrash concludes that upon hearing Esau’s blasphemy, the Shechina, the Divine Presence itself, cried out: “Weep not for the dead [for Abraham], rather weep bitterly for him [Esau] who left the fold.”

Abraham Shtahl, in Shabbat b’Shabbato, his wonderful collection of Shabbat parasha explanations for young people, cites the Midrash Lekach Tov, which recreates the complex scene at the time of the sale of the birthright.

The Midrash states that those of little faith regard it as unfathomable that a person would be prepared to sell his birthright for a simple bowl of lentils. The Midrash, consequently, assumes that a much more extended conversation, leading to the sale of the birthright to Jacob, must have taken place between Jacob and Esau.

The Midrash suggests that when Esau entered and found Jacob standing and cooking, and noticed Jacob’s eyes burning from the smoke, Esau said to his brother: “Jacob, why this great effort? Lift up your eyes and look at all the people who eat things that are ready-to-eat without preparation, like fish, creeping crawling things, the flesh of the swine, etc., and instead you pain yourself with all this work to prepare a bowl of lentils. For what?”

Jacob responds, “And if we eat everything that grows naturally now, what will we eat in the end of days, when the righteous are rewarded and the evil people are punished?”

Esau asks incredulously, “You mean to say that you believe in the World to Come? Surely, you do not expect me to believe in such a fantasy!”

Jacob responds, “If there is no World to Come and no reward or punishment, why do you need the birthright? Why is it necessary for the firstborn to stand in place of his father? You [Esau] will certainly not be willing or able to fulfill the responsibilities of the firstborn, to serve G-d, and to do the things that are appropriate for the firstborn.”

Esau answers, “I have chosen not to follow in my father’s footsteps, whose glory comes from sitting at home every day. I prefer to put my life at constant risk by going out to hunt for wild animals in the forest–– bears, lions, and other dangerous animals. What benefit is there for me to be a ‘firstborn’?”

Says Jacob, “Then sell your birthright to me today” (Genesis 25:31).

The Midrash reports that Esau then flared up in anger and cursed: “Why do I need the birthright?” The Torah, in Genesis 25:32-34, reports that Esau proceeded to sell his birthright to Jacob, then ate and drank and rose and went on his way, and that Esau despised the birthright. From Scripture’s description it is evident that Esau certainly did not sell the birthright under duress because he was famished. Rather it is clear that even after Esau ate and drank, he did not regret selling the birthright, and even mocked the birthright.

This Midrashic recreation of the conversation between Esau and Jacob underscores that Jacob’s eagerness to acquire the birthright was not motivated by mercenary considerations in order to become the sole legal heir to his father’s estate. Rather, Jacob wanted to make certain that the birthright would continue on the sacred path that was forged by his forefathers, Abraham and Isaac, something to which Esau was certainly indifferent. The Abarbanel states that Jacob sought the birthright for purely spiritual reasons, because he saw that Esau did not believe in the purpose of the birthright.

The Zohar, in Toledot 139a, records that Rabbi Simeon (the son of Yochai) and his friends were once sitting around discussing the sale of the birthright. Eliezer, Rabbi Simeon’s son, told his father that he had a major issue to discuss with him regarding Jacob and Esau. “How is it possible that Jacob, our forefather, refused to give lentils to Esau unless he would sell his birthright to Jacob? Not only that, but Esau even declares, Genesis 27:36, that Jacob deceived him twice.”

Rabbi Simeon said to them, “You are all worthy of receiving lashes, because you have given credence to the words of Esau and denied the words of Jacob. The verse itself, Genesis 25:27, testifies, “v’Ya’akov ish tahm,” that Jacob was an innocent man! Rather, this is what happened in the interchange between Jacob and Esau. Esau long detested the birthright, and was only too happy to give it away to Jacob for free. The verse itself confirms that Esau derided the birthright.

The Radak maintains that the only reason that Jacob gave Esau the lentils was that their eating together would confirm the legal sale of the birthright.

The Torah itself later underscores that Jacob did not acquire the birthright for any material gain, as Jacob himself states in Genesis 32:11, “I crossed the Jordan only with my stick.” The commentators explain that when Jacob left Canaan, he had no possessions, no money, no gold, no silver, no flocks, only his walking stick. On the other hand, we see, from Genesis 33:9, that Esau possessed much material wealth, as he says, “I have more than I need.”

The Midrashic recreation of the conversation that preceded the sale of the birthright indicates that Jacob long desired the birthright, while Esau long despised it. It is, therefore, quite justified that a person who truly valued and cherished the birthright would finally acquire it.

May you be blessed.