One of the beautiful aspects of growing up and becoming an adult, is the ability to go back each year to the stories of the Avos & Imahos. These are stories that many of us learned when we were very young, then learned again when we were a little older and more mature, and then continuing to learn them over and over.
Because each time we read these stories, we can see that the more simplistic way we read them when we are young was just scratching the surface of the deeper levels of meaning and understanding that exist within these stories.
And we find one such example this week, with the story of Yaakov and Esav, and, in particular, the story of the selling of the bechora, the birthright.
The Torah tells us the basics:
Yaakov is cooking, making a soup, and Esav comes in “V’hu AYEIF”. He is EXHAUSTED. So, Esav asks for some soup, and Yaakov, rather surprisingly, offers Esav a deal: I’ll give you the soup and you give me the birthright.
And Esav responds, “Hinei Anochi Holeich Lamut, V’Lamu li ze bechora”. I’m about to die, what do I need the bechora, the birthright for anyway!
And so, they make the deal. Soup for birthright.
But Chazal do NOT take this conversation at face value. Why would they? After all, the Torah doesn’t present the details of this conversation for no reason. They are here to teach us something more.
And so, they begin to deconstruct this conversation:
- Why does the Torah tell us that Esav is “AYEIF”?
Says Rashi, he was tired from committing murder that day.
- Why does Esav say “I am going to die!”? Clearly, this is an exaggeration, but why include it in the naarative?
Rashi, again, quoting Chazal, tells us that Yaakov & Esav were having a conversation about the future. Esav asks Yaakov, why do you want this bechora so badly anyhow? What’s it all about?
Yaakov responds: The bechor will serve in the Beis HaMikdash, but you know there will be a lot of rules. You have to make sure your hair is cut, you can’t serve if you had drunk alcohol, etc.
So Esav says: With rules like that, I’ll be destined to DIE anyhow. Meaning, because he’ll violate all of these halachos. So, what do I need for anyhow!? You can have it!
And I don’t know about you, but once I was no longer in elementary school, I started to become bothered: Why do chazal come down so hard on Esav? Yes, it’s clear that he’s not the same as Yaakov. Yes, he does threaten to murder him after Yaakov stills the bechora, but why do they pile it on? It seems somewhat unfair. And not only unfair, but it can even feel disingenuous. Just because he’s not like Yaakov he has to be this terrible rasha?
So, I want to share with you this morning, one more statement of chazal and a unique explanation, which I think can shed light on this whole approach to Esav:
The gemara in Bava Basra 16b says the following:
אמר רבי יוחנן, חמש עבירות עבר אותו רשע באותו היום: בא על נערה מאורסה, והרג את הנפש, וכפר בעיקר, וכפר בתחיית המתים, ושט את הבכורה...
Esav actually violated 5 different aveiros on that very day:
1) He committed adultery with an engaged woman, 2) he murdered someone, 3) he became a heretic, a non-believer in Gd, 4) he denied the resurrection of the dead, and 5) he abandoned the birthright.
This would really explain why he was so tired.
But then the gemara goes on to give textual sources for each of these aveiros. And I want to focus on one in particular:
וכפר בעיקר - כתיב הכא: למה זה לי, וכתיב התם: זה אלי ואנוהו. וכפר בתחיית המתים - דכתיב: טוהנה אנכי הולך למות. ושט את הבכורה - דכתיב: טזויבז עשו את הבכורה.
How do we know he had become a heretic, a non-believer? Because of the extra word “ZEH” in his statement, “Lama Li ZEH Bechora” Why do I need THIS BECHORA!?” He could have just said, “Lama Li Bechora”. So compare that ZEH to another ZEH in the Torah:
When Bnei Yisrael are standing at the Yam Suf, singing praise to Hashem in the Az Yashir, they say about Hashem, “ZEH KELI V’ANVEHU”, This is our Gd and we will praise or adorn Him!
[On the basic level, Zeh keli v’anvehu is a declaration of FAITH, and so the gm is connecting Esav’s use of the word ZEH and the ZEH by Krias Yam Suf that he’s rejecting the ZEH.]
But [either way,] the connection between these two ZEHs is pretty strange! What does Esav’s statement, rejecting the birthright, have to do with Bnei Yisrael’s declaration at the Yam Suf?
The Talne Rebbe, Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Twerski z”l, who was the son-in-law of Rav Soloveitchik, a chassidishe rebbe and also a renowned professor of Jewish Literature and Philosophy at Harvard, offers a beautiful explanation:
We know that just beforehand, as they approached the Yam Suf, they were at the 49th level of tuma. The angels themselves declared to Hashem: “Halalu ovdei Avoda Zara!” These are idolaters! Why are you saving them!?
And yet, we also know that at the moment of Krias Yam Suf, when the sea was split, Klal Yisrael experienced an unprecedented level of prophecy, as chazal tell us “Ra’a Shifcha Al hayam ma shelo raa yechezkel ben buzi”. Everyone, even the lowest member of Bnei Yisrael experienced Hashem’s presence in a way that even Yechekel HaNavi had not.
And that prophecy reached its apex when they were able to point with their fingers and say “ZEH KELI V’ANVEHU!!” This, this is MY G-D!
It was a striking turnaround. People who otherwise could have felt rejected and unworthy of a relationship with HKBH suddenly felt able to declare just how close their relationship was with Him!
And says the Tolne Rebbe, this the comparison the gemara is making between these two stories:
Yes, Bnei Yisrael felt so distant from HKBH. And it wasn’t just their feelings. The Malachei HaSharei themselves testified about all the terrible things they had done. And yet, even they were able to find their way back. They were able to reach the level of an incredibly real, dynamic relationship with Hashem, which was epitomized by their declaration “ZEH Keli”.
Esav, too, found himself in a similar situation. What do chazal mean when they tell us he was “AYEIF” with all of his murder, or that he committed so many aveiros on that day? Chazal are trying to drive home just how far Esav felt he had fallen.
Whether he had done 3, or 6, or 10 aveiros on that particular day is besides the point. What they are coming to show us is that he felt overwhelmed and totally EXHAUSTED by the weight of his mistakes, of the course his life had taken. How it had disappointed his mother and father, and how different he now seemed from his brother, Yaakov.
And eventually that weight became too heavy, so when Yaakov asks for the bechora, Esav says to him, “LAMA ZEH LI BECHORA”.
Look at me, Yaakov! Look at my life. You and me, we’re so different. My life is a disaster. There’s no hope for me.
And that, says the gemara, was the HERESY of Esav. He said, Lama ZEH li” what do I need the ZEH for? And he overlooked the power of a different ZEH, the Zeh of Zeh keli v’anvehu, the ability for a person to come back to HKBH no matter how far away he or she has been.
Says the Talne Rebbe, Esav’s heresy was not his lack of faith in HKBH. It was his lack of belief in HIMSELF, and his own ability to take small steps and to start to change the trajectory of his life.
When we make kiddush every Friday, we say the words, ‘Techila l’mikraei kodesh, Zecher L’Yetzias Mitzrayim’.
The Rophshitzer Rebbe used to explain these words as follow: When a person wants to BEGIN a journey towards Kedusha, to begin to be called KADOSH, where should he or she look? Zecher L’Yetzias Mitzrayim. Remember Yetzias Mitzrayim. Remember how far we were and how far along we came. Remember that if they could do it then, then anyone – every single one of us - can come close again.
And with this, I think we can change our perspective a little bit in terms of how chazal treat Esav. If we see Esav as one individual, then it seems they are just piling on him. But if we understand that Esav represents not only himself but really any person who has fallen far from HKBH, and see this story not of a wicked person who just does bad all day, but a person who falls off the wagon and then gives up on himself and where that takes him, then his life is not simply a lesson in failure, but a reminder NEVER to follow his path, and instead avoid falling into despair, even with all we carry from our own lives. Because to carry Esav’s belief that he was too far gone and unredeemable, is to be, as the gemara says, a Kafar B’Ikar, as THAT is a belief that is beyond the pale of the Jewish religion. Because we believe that ANYONE can come back.
So, while the story of Esav is to a certain extent a tragic one, it is a story that can still leave us all with a remarkably important lesson. A reminder that there is nothing any of us can do that make us undesirable, that make us unredeemable. Nothing that makes HKBH uninterested in us. He always wants us back. We just have to be willing to see it for ourselves.