The Haftorah of Toldot begins with the following:
הֲלוֹא אָח עֵשָׂו לְיַעֲקֹב נְאֻם ה’ וָאֹהַב אֶת יַעֲקֹב וְאֶת עֵשָׂו שָׂנֵאתִי.
… isn’t Esav a brother of Yaakov? says Hashem. I love Yaakov. But Esav I hate” (Malachi 1:2-3)
Everybody knows that Esav is evil, that he is a huge disappointment to G-d. But how do we know this? When did it happen? And what did he do that was so terrible?
The Parsha only hints at what Esav did wrong. Knowing how he’ll turn out, we tend to judge Esav in that light from the beginning, and view his choice of occupation as a hunter and a “man of the field” as a reflection of his violent nature. However, this is premature. Hunting is not inherently negative. Yitzchak Avinu, Esav’s father, appreciated the food that Esav brought in, and the protection that he provided for their fields. There is no reason for G-d – or us – to hate him just yet.
But then the Parsha tells us the story of the stew and the birthright:
וַיָּזֶד יַעֲקֹב נָזִיד וַיָּבֹא עֵשָׂו מִן הַשָּׂדֶה וְהוּא עָיֵף: וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו אֶל יַעֲקֹב הַלְעִיטֵנִי נָא מִן הָאָדֹם הָאָדֹם הַזֶּה כִּי עָיֵף אָנֹכִי עַל כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמוֹ אֱדוֹם: וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב מִכְרָה כַיּוֹם אֶת בְּכֹרָתְךָ לִי: וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ לָמוּת וְלָמָּה זֶּה לִי בְּכֹרָה:וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב הִשָּׁבְעָה לִּי כַּיּוֹם וַיִּשָּׁבַע לוֹ וַיִּמְכֹּר אֶת בְּכֹרָתוֹ לְיַעֲקֹב: וְיַעֲקֹב נָתַן לְעֵשָׂו לֶחֶם וּנְזִיד עֲדָשִׁים וַיֹּאכַל וַיֵּשְׁתְּ וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלַךְ וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו אֶת הַבְּכֹרָה:
Yaakov was simmering a stew. Esav came in, faint, from the field.
Esav said to Yaakov, “Give me a swallow of that red stuff! I’m faint!” — that is why he was called Edom.
Yaakov said, “Sell me your birthright right now.”
Esav said, “Here I am about to die, why do I need this birthright?”
Yaakov said, “Swear to me right now.” He swore to him, he sold his birthright to Yaakov.
Yaakov had given Esav bread, and bean stew.
He ate, he drank. He got up, and he left. Esav treated the birthright with contempt. (Bereishit 25:29-34)
Esav comes in from the field, and demands that Yaakov give him “that red stuff.” Now, anyone who has made any kind of stew, even a red lentil stew, knows that by the time it’s edible, it can no longer be described as red. If Esav, exhausted and dehydrated, was seeing red everywhere, that says more about him and his mindset than about the food that Yaakov was cooking. As Rashi puts it, his exhaustion was due to all the killing that he had done. The redness wasn’t in the lentils, it was in the blood that he had spilled that day. And it wasn’t just that day; it became the name by which he was known to all: Edom, the Red.
Seeing Esav’s reaction, Yaakov takes this opportunity to have a conversation with him about the Bechora, the birthright.
The Parsha never tells us what the meaning of the Bechora was, and what makes it important, but we can learn about it from the Haftorah. It starts by saying that Esav is hated, but then drops that subject and switches to berating the Cohanim for not respecting their role in serving Hashem. It appears to be a non-sequitur, unless we assume that the two subjects are in fact related. We can then deduce that whatever Esav did to make G-d hate him must be connected to the role of the Cohanim.
Originally, the role of bringing sacrifices was the privilege of the first-born. Indeed, the Gemara tells us: “Until the Tabernacle was established, private altars were permitted, and the service was done by the first-born.” (Talmud Bavli, Zevachim 112b). The birthright of the first-born in every family was to be its representative at the Altar. It is as if every single family could have their own “Cohen,” serving Hashem. We see this in practice at Matan Torah:
וַיִּשְׁלַח אֶת נַעֲרֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיַּעֲלוּ עֹלֹת וַיִּזְבְּחוּ זְבָחִים שְׁלָמִים לַה’ פָּרִים.
רש”י: את נערי- הבכורות.
Moshe sent the youths of the Children of Yisrael, they offered burnt offerings, and peace offerings to Hashem…
Rashi: Youths: the “Bechorot”
Rashi explains that the “youths” that offered the sacrifices at the time of Matan Torah were indeed the first-born, the Bechorot.
Unfortunately, the Sin of the Golden Calf caused this system to be set aside for another one: the Bechorot were replaced by the Leviim, who had demonstrated their uncompromising commitment to Hashem during its aftermath. In some cases, this exchange involved the Bechorot redeeming themselves for money.
Yaakov and Esav handled it similarly. Esav, as the official first-born, would have been designated as the family “Cohen.” He would have been the one to bring sacrifices on their behalf. But Yaakov understood that this was not something that Esav wanted or needed. He was fully committed to his role as a hunter and killer, his entire life the color of freshly spilled blood. Serving G-d would not stay on his agenda. So Yaakov suggested making an exchange: Esav would sell the Bechora that he did not want and gain his freedom, just like the Leviim and Bechorot did after Matan Torah.
This is how the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 6) explains what happened:
לפי שמצינו שיעקב חמד את הבכורה לשם שמים כדי שיוכל להקריב, ולקחה מעשו בדמים, והסכים הקב”ה עמו, וקראו בני בכורי ונתן גדולה לבכורים שיקריבו לפניו.
“We find that Yaakov desired the birthright for the sake of Heaven, in order to be able to offer sacrifices, and he bought it from Esav for money. And Hashem agreed to this, and called him “my first-born son,” and gave honor to the first-born, that they should offer sacrifices before Him.”
Just to be clear, the exchange was of money, not food. Yaakov had already given him food. It was not hunger that motivated Esav to reject his birthright, it was something else:
וַיֹּאכַל וַיֵּשְׁתְּ וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלַךְ וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו אֶת הַבְּכֹרָה.
“He ate, he drank. He got up, and he left. Esav treated the birthright with contempt.”
Esav was not interested in a service of G-d that may or may not materialize sometime in the future, which he may or may not live to see. He was interested in the here and now. He ate, he drank, he got what he wanted and he was done. He got up and walked away. He sold the birthright because it meant nothing to him: “Esav treated the birthright with contempt.”
This phrase, “treat with contempt” (ויבז), is repeated many times by the Haftorah, as it criticizes the attitude of the Cohanim in the Second Beit HaMikdash. Here is just one sample:
וְאַתֶּם מְחַלְּלִים אוֹתוֹ בֶּאֱמָרְכֶם שֻׁלְחַן אֲדֹנָי מְגֹאָל הוּא וְנִיבוֹ נִבְזֶה אָכְלוֹ. וַאֲמַרְתֶּם הִנֵּה מַתְּלָאָה וְהִפַּחְתֶּם אוֹתוֹ אָמַר ה’ צְבָאוֹת וַהֲבֵאתֶם גָּזוּל וְאֶת הַפִּסֵּחַ וְאֶת הַחוֹלֶה וַהֲבֵאתֶם אֶת הַמִּנְחָה הַאֶרְצֶה אוֹתָהּ מִיֶּדְכֶם אָמַר ה’.
But you desecrate it, by saying, “The Lord’s table is repugnant,” it’s an expression, “Eating from it is contemptible.” And you say, “What a burden!” and you have sniffed at it, says Hashem Tzvaot. And you bring the stolen, the lame, and the sick; you bring it as the offering. Should I accept it from you? says Hashem. (Malachi 1:12-13)
The Haftorah describes the Cohanim treating the service of Hashem with the same contempt that Esav showed for it when he sold it. They too treat it as a burden, and sniff at it, and do the least that they can get away with. It is almost as if they’re asking, in Esav’s voice: “Why do I need this birthright?”
The Haftorah tells us what the Parsha only implies: the disdain and contempt that Esav showed for the idea of serving G-d is hateful. It is a deal-breaker, something that cannot be worked with or worked around, and it is entirely unacceptable for those whose role it is to serve at the Altar of Hashem.
Esav is hated, and Yaakov is loved, but when the descendants of Yaakov treat the service of G-d as if it were the very last thing we need in our lives, then we might be as big a disappointment to Him as Esav was.
Copyright © Kira Sirote
In memory of my parents, Peter & Nella Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ואמי מורתי חנה בת זעליג ז”ל