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Hold On

By: Rav Uri Goldstein

One of the most puzzling details in the Torah’s account of Esav’s sale of his birthright to Yaakov is Esav’s seemingly hyperbolic reaction to his own hunger. When asked to pay for the nezid adashim [generally translated as lentil stew] with his birthright, Esav responds: “vayo’mer Esav hinneh anochi holech lamut, v’lamah-zeh li b’chorah”.  Esav said: I am at the point of death, of what use is a birthright to me?

Was Esav truly so short sighted? Even if he was truly hungry, was he at the point of death? Could he not have surmised that after a quick bite he would feel fine and would almost certainly regret relinquishing the birthright?

In commenting on these pesukim, the Midrash Rabba paints a portrait of Esav as a man who was not merely overreacting to his momentary hunger, but was experiencing nothing short of existential despair. The Midrash famously notes that Yaakov was cooking lentils, a food associated with mourning, because Avraham Avinu had just died. The Midrash describes the following scene:

“Yaakov cooked a stew”. Esav said to him: What is the reason for this?

Yaakov replied: For that elder [Avraham] has died.

Esav said: The Attribute of Justice [middat ha-din] applied to Avraham? There must be no rewards for good deeds, nor must there be techiyat ha-metim.

According to this Midrash, when Esav claims that he is “at the point of death”, he is not complaining about a hard day’s work: He is bemoaning the human condition, and giving expression to an overwhelming feeling of insignificance. If Avraham Avinu can die, Esav reasons, there is no point in living or in hoping for a better world.

The story of Esav’s reaction, as explained by Chazal, points to a larger question: How do we, as human beings respond to the feeling of insignificance. Esav, the “man of the field” was completely at home in nature, and overly familiar with death. He had convinced himself, though, that Avraham Avinu, his grandfather who occupied a unique place in the world and who enjoyed a unique relationship with God, must surely be above the laws of nature. When he learns of Avraham’s death, Esav comes to the conclusion that Avraham was in fact no different than any of the other creatures that Esav encountered on a daily basis. If the laws of nature apply to Avraham - to the righteous - just as they do to other humans, animals and plants, there must be nothing that sets people like Avraham apart from anything else, and thus we are all insignificant. Esav sees no point in holding on to his birthright: Avraham died. I am going to die… All is for naught.

The response to Esav’s perspective is given beautiful expression in Tehilim, perek 8, in which King David notes that indeed, when encountering the vastness of the cosmos, it is natural for the human being to feel insignificant:

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“When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place, what is man that You are mindful of him, mortal man that You have taken note of him?”

And yet, David continues, God has made Humanity only “slightly less” than divine, and has empowered us to rule over creation. Similarly, the Rambam, in Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah notes that when a human being looks at creation, the earth, the stars and the planets, it is natural to be overwhelmed and overcome with a shocking realization of our own insignificance. For the Rambam though, this is not a cause for despair: It is a gateway to learning about God, and ultimately to loving God.

Esav fears a world governed by the laws of nature, but Yaakov, and those of us who strive to incorporate Yaakov’s perspective into our own lives, understand that we need not fear nature. Instead we should look at the world with all of its details, nuances and laws as keys to experiencing God’s greatness, and thereby be inspired to live lives filled with meaning.

Shabbat Shalom






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