This week's Torah reading, Toldot, relates the well-known story of the birth of the twin boys Yaakov and Esau and their subsequent struggle for ascendancy and dominance. While still in Rivkah's womb they were wrestling with one another, vying to be the first to emerge and earn the title of firstborn and all the hereditary benefits, both material and spiritual which ensued thereof.
Esau won the first battle, emerging first from the womb, "ruddy and hairy."(Genesis 25:25) But his opening victory was not absolute, as his ambitious younger brother, Yaakov, emerged immediately after, with a tight grasp on Esau's heel, (ekev, in Hebrew). From this moment forth, the two brothers, Esauand Yaakov, would be engaged in an eternal struggle for supremacy. Apart from this shared ambition, it seems that the brothers had precious little in common.
"Esau was a man who understood the hunt, a man of the field, whereas Yaakov was an innocent man, dwelling in tents." (ibid 25:27)
But being an innocent man, (tam, in Hebrew, which also means simple, or pure) didn't preclude being clever, and soon we learn of Yaakov's sale of the red pottage he cooked and sold to Esau in exchange for the privilege of the birthright:
"Now Yaakov cooked a pottage, and Esau came from the field, and he was faint. And Esau said to Yaakov, 'Pour into me some of this red, red pottage, for I am faint'; he was therefore named Edom (red). And Yaakov said, 'Sell me as of this day your birthright.'" (ibid 25:29-31)
The deal was struck and we then learn that Esau "ate and drank and arose and left, and Esau despised the birthright."(ibid 25:34) But why did Esau despise the birthright? Was he simply too famished to think clearly and therefore made an ill-considered decision? Torah refutes this possibility, as it clearly states that even after Esau ate and drank and presumably was satisfied and revitalized, he nevertheless "despised the birthright."
Entitlement to the birthright was, without doubt, a valuable asset in the struggle for fraternal supremacy, so why did Esau place no value in possessing it? Esau, in fact, states very clearly in his own words why he had no need for the birthright. When Yaakov first said "'Sell me as of this day your birthright,' Esau replied, 'Behold, I am going to die; so why do I need this birthright?'" (ibid 25:31) "Behold, I am going to die!"
True enough, we are all going to die. That is, our mortal bodies will all perish in the goodness of time, however our immortal souls will live on forever. But Esaudidn't see it that way. The hunter, the man of the field, witnessed life and death every day in his pursuit of game. The possession of the birthright would be of no more use to him than it would be to the deer that he pierced with his arrow. We live, we die. We hunt and are hunted. This is the Torah of Esau!
Esau was born hairy and red, and therefore his parents named him Esau. But the name Esau in Hebrew means neither hairy nor red. Esau is from the word asui, a form of the verb la'asot, meaning to make or construct. Asui means 'built and completed.' Esau emerged from the womb a complete physical being, already tanned from the time he will spend in the field and covered with hair. But not only was Esau born physically complete, his physicality would completely describe him. He had no spiritual inner light to guide him. Each day was as good as the game he killed and nothing more. There was no tomorrow for Esau. He would fill his belly to satisfaction and be off, neither thanking G-d for the meal he had eaten, nor saving some for tomorrow. Tomorrow never comes. A birthright is only good for some distant future. It has no value in the present, and Esau is "going to die:" he has no future.
Esau is the father of materialism, a take on life that all that we experience is a result of physical exchanges. There is no underlying spiritual power animating our actions, nor is there an accompanying virtue in doing good, nor immorality in doing bad. These concepts of good and bad, of eternal values, of a soul which is a part of a greater eternal Being, are all foreign to Esau and to his followers. Yet to live for the hunt and to die with no tomorrow is a mindset that animates much of our modern society. A coarse materialism, ruddy and hairy, which says "eat, drink, get up and go, neither acknowledging the Creator nor leaving a legacy for others to follow: every man for himself." We are born fully built, our DNA determining the development and eventual denouement of every cell in our being, and, according to Esau, that is all.
But Yaakov, the simple man dwelling in tents, he understood that the birthright is the key to opening our eyes and our hearts to the non-physical, non-materialistic source of truth, of love, of compassion, and of virtue that G-d has given to us to lead our lives by and to teach our children so that they too can possess and pass on the precious birthright. What was for Esau worth no more than a bowl of red porridge was for Yaakov more precious than rubies.
When the adult Yaakov received his father Yitzchak's blessing, Yitzchak "came closer (to Yaakov), and he kissed him, and he smelled the fragrance of his garments, and he blessed him, and he said, 'Behold, the fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field, which HaShem has blessed!'" (ibid 27:27)
Yitzchak, who had always seen Esau's mastery of the material world, his keen ability to survive, as attributes worthy of the birthright, now, wittingly or unwittingly, comes closer to Yaakov, describing his fragrance, that is, his spiritual essence, as being "like the fragrance of a field" - not the field of Esau's endless hunt, but the field of Yaakov, a field "which HaShem has blessed!”
It is not the fragrance of the goat skins Yaakov is wearing that Yitzchak is smelling, but, as our sages opine, the fragrance of the Garden of Eden - the fragrance of man's eternal covenant with HaShem!
From The Temple Institute