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FIVE WORDS FOR HIM – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon – Toldos (Gen.25:19-28:9)
This week’s reading introduces an important character who will figure in Jewish history for generations, in fact centuries. His name is Esau and we meet him even before he is born. In the womb he and his twin brother Jacob are already fighting, causing their mother Rebecca some awful pain. In fact they are still fighting during birth, as Esau manages to emerge first with Jacob plunging after him and grasping his heel. Their relationship does not improve. In fact they are described as opposites in appearance, personality and behavior. Esau is hairy, Jacob is smooth. Esau spends his time in the hills, hunting and killing – both men and animals. Jacob dwells in tents and spends his time learning and farming.
Family relations get the effects of this contrast. Isaac prefers his first-born, Esau, who brings him fresh-killed game. Rebecca loves the quiet boy Jacob. As Isaac ages, he loses his eyesight, which some rabbinic commentaries charge was the result of the effort to overlook Esau’s evil deeds. Both he and Rebecca find bitter experience with the Canaanite women Esau marries. And it is Rebecca who recruits her favorite Jacob to deceive the blind old Isaac into giving him the dying blessing he intended for Esau.
Events following Isaac’s death find Esau and his sons and followers threatening and attacking Jacob and his family. Esau’s nickname Edom (the Red One) became a name for Rome in later history, joining the violent tyranny of the Roman Empire to the memory of a primitive enemy.
But perhaps the most telling description of Esau comes in five words we read when he sells his birthright to Jacob. Bursting into Jacob’s tent all sweated up and famished– that’s famished=hungry, not farMisht (Yiddish for confused) — from a day chasing game in the hills, Esau finds his brother with a pot of porridge he just made from his crop of lentils. Red lentils, apparently.
“Give me some of that red stuff!” says Esau.
“All right,” Jacob answers. “Just trade me your birthright for it.” We can imagine Esau’s reaction to that idea. Like, HUH?
“Here I am dying of hunger. What do I need with a birthright?” So he makes the deal and sits down to the table. Now here come those five words. Says the Torah, “Esau ate, drank, stood, exited and despised the birthright.”
Portrait of a boor, in just five verbs. Some enemies are smart, and some are like Esau. Both can be dangerous. Defeating them takes more than a birthright.