In Perashat Toledot we read of the birth of our forefather Yaakob and his twin brother Esav. Theirs is a complex relationship filled with strife and difficulty. The strife runs deep and actually begins in utero:
The children almost crushed one another inside her… (25:22)
It seems though, that the external struggles between the brothers may originate from internal and personal ones within each of them. Both Yaakob and Esav wrestle with internal discord, and the lessons we learn from them are monumental. In Toledot the struggles of the first-born twin, Esav are showcased. He finds that being the eldest son and bearing the privileges and responsibilities that come with it is a heavy and intrusive burden. He was of the opinion that the imminence of mortality made any real value of his birthright moot and hardly worth the cost of keeping it.
‘Here I am on my way to dying, so what good to me is a first-born right?’ (25:32)
Esav famously resolves to sell his first-born rights to his twin brother for nothing more than a visually appetising lunch. From Esav’s perspective, the good meal was here to be enjoyed now, while the ultimate benefit of the birthright might not be realised for years, or even generations, to come. Yet, we see the internal struggle begin to emerge when, after having finished his lunch, he gets up to leave and further belittles the right he has just sold. The pain and sadness he feels in the aftermath of a poor choice prompts him to cheapen what he has given up as a way of mitigating the pain.
There is no doubt that the sale of the birthright was a conflicted decision for Esav. He is torn between the need to bear the burden of the birthright and the desire for a carefree life in a world that offers a plethora of pleasures. It so plagues him, that upon hearing that his father has blessed Yaakob, and thus, confirmed the delivery of the birthright into his hands, he wails from the depths of his soul over the loss.
When Esav heard…he called out with a very great and bitter cry… (27:34)
At this point he resorts to what many of us do and, in a bout of denial, paradoxically insists that there is still a solution while knowing at the same time that the possibility is no longer available.
Esav said to his father: ‘Have you only one blessing father? Bless me also, father!’
And Esav lifted his voice up and wept. (27:38)
The internal strife we find in Esav is familiar to us all. At one point or another in life we find that we are pulled between actualising the long-term responsibilities and potentials that lie within us and giving in to our immediate desires and local opportunities. For Esav, a hearty lunch and a weak moment were enough to cause him to sell the element of his identity that, deep down, mattered to him perhaps more than he was consciously aware.
We all contend with some form of Esav’s difficulties. At times we fail and at times we prevail, but what makes the failures pernicious and ultimately damaging is when, after failing, we attempt to rationalise it, as Esav did, and succumb to mediocrity. Rather than succumb, we would do better to commit to the struggle itself. Through this, although gruelling at times, we emerge strong, and slowly yet steadily come into our best selves.
Rabbi Joseph Dweck