Parashat Toldot opens with Rivka and Yitzchak praying for a child. Hashem responds to their Tefilla and Rivka conceives. The Torah then describes how Rivka begins to feel an abnormal pain within her womb. She enquires of a great holy sage of the time Shem ( the son of Noach who was still alive and headed up a Yeshiva teaching the deeper spiritual wisdom) who tells her that she has two nations within her, the nation of Israel (Yaakov) and the Nation of Edom (The Roman/Western Nations) which will come from Eisav (Rashi 25:23). Rashi explains that when Rivka would pass a house of Torah learning, Yaakov would push to get out and when she passed a house of Idol worship, Eisav pressured to escape the womb (Rashi 25:22). Idol worship represents the deification and glorification of the material world in place of the hidden world of spirituality. This internal struggle in Rivka’s womb was thus the precursor of a cosmic battle that would be fought throughout history: The battle for supremacy of the material versus the spirit. The battle of Eisav versus Yaakov.
The young boys grow up and, as expected, Yaakov expends his efforts in spiritual pursuits while Eisav is described by the Torah as a hunter, a man of the field. In fact, Eisav’s ‘field’ activities involved the ‘hunting’ of defenseless people ending in regular immorality and murder (Gemara Bava Batra 16b and the Midrash). It is after one such murderous outing that Eisav returns home exhausted and finds Yaakov preparing a lentil meal. Avraham had just passed away and Yaakov was preparing the lentils, a customarily food given to mourners, to serve to his grieving father (Rashi). Eisav sees the food and, overcome with hunger, he begs that Yaakov pour the bowl of food directly into his throat: “And Eisav said to Yaakov, pour into me, I beg, some of that very red stuff for I am exhausted” (Bereishit 25:30).
In response to Eisav’s demand for food, Yaakov asks that Eisav sell his firstborn birthright (which entailed the spiritual right of service in the Beit HaMikdash in the future). Eisav responds saying: “Look I am going to die so of what use to me is a birthright?!” Eisav swears to Yaakov, eats and drinks and goes on his way, belittling the birthright by mocking it saying “why would you give away a good meal for some worthless abstract future reward of no tangible value?” (Midrash).
This short episode reveals Eisav’s true nature and philosophy on life: The Midrash teaches that Eisav sneered upon hearing of Avraham’s passing, commenting that “He is gone now forever – an eternal death, never to arise again!” (Midrash HaGadol 25:31). With this he denied two fundamental cornerstones of Torah faith: that the soul lives on eternally after the body has expired and that in the Messianic age there will be a revival of the dead (the corrected bodies will be rebuilt and reunited with the souls) (Bava Batra 16b). This was very much an expression of Eisav’s life philosophy. He was focused on the here and now, pleasure from physical life in this world was the only thing that deserved any attention because, in his mind, that was all there really was to life (Etz Yosef, Bereishit Rabah). There was no spiritual world, no afterlife, or purpose to life other than experiencing as much pleasure as possible. The Eisav-material, physical pleasure focus and the instant gratification outlook go philosophically hand in hand. It is because one sees the physical as primary, that one is driven to ‘seize the day’ in fulfilling one’s physical desires to their maximum. One who thinks the purpose to life is only physical gratification and pleasure will likely fall into the trap of rashly diving into a pleasure-fulfilling opportunity, neglecting to think of the potential ramifications, and they will rationalize their thoughtless impulsiveness with the popular acronym; “YOLO – You Only Live Once”.
This Eisav outlook on life has carried throughout the generations, appearing in Babylonian idolatrous and materialistic culture, Greek Hellenism, Roman Paganism and all the way through to the hedonism of the 1920’s and the instantaneous-ism, the instant gratification world of material focus that we all live in today. We are the ‘touch screen’ generation; food can be cooked in minutes, clothes laundered with the flick of a switch, a grocery shop performed from the comfort of one’s own home, and we can access billions of pages of information on almost anything anywhere in the world with the touch of a finger. Ironically and tragically, while this technological paradise should allow for more time to spend on the real important things in life, it has in fact left so many people so busy with ‘stuff to do and get’ that the time for real genuine connection to loved one’s and G-d is nominal. We are well and truly caught in the thick of thin things!
Additionally, from a young age people become so used to instant results that any exertion of genuine effort is reason to run away. If is not easy, instant and pleasurable, it becomes a very hard sell. The problem is that all real genuine long-lasting goodness in the world comes from genuine effort. For example, a successful loving marriage that lasts is only the result of much hard work. A generation that has been raised on ‘Titanic’ style promises of instant lasting romance as is ‘sold’ on billboards, in magazines, TV Shows, Movies, and music everywhere is going to struggle greatly when the romance fades and the reality of the requirement of hard work sets in.
The Eisav approach also leads to frightening tragic ramifications. People have lost their whole life – family, marriage, friends, reputation, business, spiritual connection – all for one moment of pleasure. Young and old make rash, thoughtless choices, blinded by a moment of desire and live in deep regret for years to come unable to ‘delete’ what they have done.
Additionally, the Eisav approach leads to comparisons and judgments of people based purely on superficial achievements. People size each other up based on their bank accounts, possessions, titles, looks and successes in academic and work life. One is considered to be a ‘success’ based purely on their having ‘achieved’ – despite what effort or lack thereof brought them to their destination. People look at these ‘successful’ people in awe, with honour, and even with great envy.
This Eisav approach stands in glaring contrast to the Yaakov, Torah approach. Firstly, Judaism sees real growth only as a result of the effort exerted and not whether the result was achieved. In fact, according to Torah, there is little focus on achievement per se but rather on the work put into the journey – as the Mishna in Avot teaches: “According to the effort is the reward” ( Avot 5:22). There are no ‘quick –fixes’ in spirituality. No instantaneous downloads of greatness. Growth takes work – period. As such, a ‘success’ in authentic Jewish Torah terms is someone who has worked hard, even if they never ‘get there’. For example, one who learns Torah for hours and struggles to understand the depth of the teaching of a short passage of Talmud is rewarded more so than one who spends a few minutes and, effortlessly, with his razor sharp in-born intellect, covers many pages of the same material. Imagine a school system and society based on these measures of ‘success’? No one would gloat at their inherited or undeserved fortune or inborn talents, and others would not feel inadequate for lacking these. People would only be rightfully proud of having worked hard to use whatever they have. Effort would be the yardstick and not mere possession of talents or end results.
Also, in contrast to the Eisav approach, the Torah teaches that a truly wise approach to life is to “Roeh et HaNolad” which simply means; one who thinks of the outcome of something before getting involved in it ( Avot 2:9). When a person approaches life like this, they won’t let any rash impulse drive a decision. Rather, they will carefully weigh up the options, always thinking of the ramifications in the future. The Mishna teaches that one should therefore always “ Mechashev Hefsed Mitzvah keneged Scharah VeSchar Aveira Keneged Hefsedah” – “Weigh up the ‘loss’ of a mitzvah (the effort involved) against its reward (eternal), and the gain of a sin (temporary and fleeting) against its loss (years of regret, and eternal spiritual ramifications)” ( Avot, Chp. 2). With this calculation as a prelude to a decision, one is sure not to make rash, regrettable mistakes.
We are all so privileged to be the descendants of Yaakov Avinu. May we all be blessed to embrace and align our values with that of our forefathers and distance ourselves from the Eisav philosophies that pervade our modern society.
Have a wonderful Shabbat,