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Parashath Tol’doth Notes

November 4, 2013

Question: I never understood how Esau (without a V) could sell his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. Why would he do that anyway? Come to think it, what was the birthright?

Answer: As Isaac was a wealthy land owner, with many servants, cash, and flocks, it was a only matter of time before his oldest son would inherit his empire, which was eventually to include all of Canaan. Of course his younger son would not be left with nothing, but the oldest stood to inherit two thirds of everything his father already had, the rest of the land that they had yet to control, and the right to be CEO. That was the birthright. Now, Jacob was obviously the right man for the job, as he continued in the ways of Abraham and Isaac, and everyone knew that, including Esau, who made the calculated decision that, because it took even grandfather many years to move on, as a a young man it was unlkkely that he, with such a dangerous profession, would outlive his own father and inherit everything, and it was thus better to sell his birthright for cash up front. Many Rishonim follow the opinion of Rashbam to 25:31:

Sell, today: I.e., immediately. Sell me a portion of your birthright, i.e., the money you expect to receive as your share in father’s estate in exchange for money I will give you now, and then I will give you the food as a sign of testimony and affirmation, just as we have found that “they ate there upond the mound” as a sign of affirmation of the treaty between Laban and Jacob. 

There are other examples of people finalizing a business deal with a meal. Thus Esau made what he thought was a good business decision, and did not just sell something of great importance for a bowl of stew. It should be noted that Jacob made this offer because he was keenly familiar with Esau’s impetuous and irresponsible nature.

Question: How come Isaac did not immediately revoke his blessing to Jacob when Esau revealed himself? Is it not part of any legal code that something given under false pretenses is not legally transferred? Come to think of it, what was the blessing anyway?

Answer: Esau figured that because he and his brother were 15 and their father was 75 when Abraham died at the age of 175, it would be a long while before he stood to take Dad’s place, and he was sort of right. Isaac stayed around for another 105 years, passing away when his twins were 120 years old. However, old age got the jump on Isaac, who decided that when he still had some 50-60 years left, he was going to pass on the reigns of the family business to his eldest son, despite the reservations he had about his qualifications. Isaac reasoned that the responsibility of being head of the family would improve Esau’s character. The blessing was the official process, the investiture, by which Esau was to step in to his role as heir. However, once Isaac realized that his own wife had arranged for the more-qualified younger brother to  take Esau’s place, and that God had allowed it, he made the quick pronouncement that he stood by his previously mistaken declaration: that the son he had blessed, i.e., had declared to be his successor as the recipient of the “blessing of Abraham”, would remain that way. Esau himself acknowledged this when he announced that Jacob had bought his birthright, and later when Esua left Canaan to settle in Seir.

It is also interesting to  note that whereas Esau had once felt he had no reason to wait for his father to die in order to inherit him,  afterwards, and only because he realized that he could have gotten everything much earlier, he plotted to wait for his father to die so that he could kill his brother and take back what he had lost. That is, because he was originally impatient to receive that which was rightfully his, he would now have to both wait and sin in order to get it back.

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