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עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

The Cost of Achievement

Posted by rabbiart on November 26, 2008

Sometimes we read the story of Yakov and Esav and shudder at an outcome that makes – in our tradition – Yakov the good guy and hero of the story.  He practices extortion over a bowl of soup.  He commits one of the all time “mommy made me do it” when he swindles his father and brother to get a blessing to which he was not entitled. When introduced, Yakov already has a diminished presence.  His brother Esav is all hairy, a hunter, a man of the fields. Yakov is simply a quiet/simple man who stays at home.וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם, יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים One day, seemingly out of nowhere, he demands his brother’s birthright ( Heb. בְּכֹרָתְךָ your first-born rights). Why? This is rather un-brotherly behavior. There is no evidence of conflict between them as with his father and uncle. Has he been influenced by someone. Well, his mother knows that Yakov’s destiny is to rule over his brother, because HaShem said so

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה לָהּ, שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנֵךְ, וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים, מִמֵּעַיִךְ יִפָּרֵדוּ; וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ, וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר

HaShem said to her “two peoples are in your womb, two nations will separate out from your loins, one nation will be stronger, the elder shall serve the younger.

Yakov is born second, holding his brother’s heel as they exit the womb.* The usual reading is that he is struggling to come out first, was supposed to be born first, and all his life was simply trying to get back to his rightful position.

What if he was in fact pushing his brother out first in order to be the younger?

Did Yakov know of the prophecy – and his destiny? (Does “Judaism” believe in destiny?) We know many people who believe they are with their bashert– the one that is meant for them.  We probably know people that we feel are “meant for big things.” Was Yakov? Did he in fact (or in our imagination) have a motive for demanding his brother’s birthright?  Could there have been something more than “mommy said so” when he escalates by swindling not only his brother but not his father?

The midrash is replete with stories testifying to Yakov’s exemplary character, as if to compensate for his behavior in the text. In one well-known story, the twins wrestle in the womb because when Rivkah would pass a yeshiva Yakov would struggle to come out, but when she would pass a brother, Esav would struggle to come out.  Were the brothers, still in the womb, already engaged in their struggle?In a mystical tradition, the child in the womb is taught all Torah, all teaching, by a guardian angel. But at the moment of birth the child is tapped on the head and forgets of all his (or her) learning. But not completely; an echo remains and we spend our lives trying to regain this lost knowledge. As he grew up, was Yakov aware of his destiny? (Have you ever felt a sense of destiny?)

And what about Esav? Why did he despise his birthright?
וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו, אֶת-הַבְּכֹרָה (final verse of the chapter.
Did he sell his birthright because he despised it? Or did he despise it because he sold it? The text is not clear.

Rashi has a very strong comment:

העיד הכתוב על רשעו שביזה עבודתו של המקום

The text testifies to Esav’s evil-ness because he spurned serving HaShem (by selling his birthright).

This is an entire family locked into struggle over what the future will be. They manipulate and lie. Twin brothers end up separated for twenty years, with at least one of them living in fear.  Yet somehow out of this distasteful family mess comes the third generation of our founding ancestors.

But, we might wonder, at what cost to the individuals involved. Just as Avraham loses the love of his son because of the Akedah, now an entire family is torn apart to serve the cause of building a people.


* Hence his name Yakov (heb עקב heel, consequences)
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