Esau: a case study in hope
Toldot | Genesis 25:19-28:9
Esau arrives home after a day’s hunt, smells his brother’s cooking, and trades his birthright away for dinner. Why?
Details matter. Upon entering the tent Esau announces, “I am weary.” Jacob makes him a proposition, “Sell (michra) your birthright.” Esau despairs: “I am about to die. What good is my birthright to me?”
And with that, the deed is done.
We are conditioned to treat Esau as the “heavy” — but God is compassionate, the rabbis say, so we should be too. Look again at Esau.
Is Esau’s weariness purely physical? So weak he cannot think straight enough to keep his birthright intact? Hardly. Take him at his word! “I am weary…about to die.”
It doesn’t take much to diagnose Esau as suffering from a malady that attacks millions of people: depression.
The rabbis emphasize the word used by Jacob, the imperative, michra — “Sell!” It can also be read machra, the past tense, meaning, “She (or it) sold” — as if Jacob was observing that something or other had already sold the birthright. Nahmanides indicates what that “something” was: Esau’s weariness — ayefut in Hebrew, a feminine noun — is the real subject of the sentence.
With this reading, Esau arrives home, his depression creeping in with the setting sun. “I am weary, ready to die,” he announces. “What good is anything to me?”
“Your weariness has sold the birthright,” Jacob observes.
The Torah sums it up: “Esau treated even his birthright with contempt,” not because he is too tired to think clearly, but because his very soul is so weary of the world he is ready to die.
With this we can now recognize Esau in ourselves or in those we love. Sufferers of depression present themselves as strong and filled with promise while inside they are weary beyond belief. Their own birthright — fresh air, sunshine, life itself — seems meaningless. People ask them to snap out of it — but they cannot. Like Esau, they are oh, so weary — ready to die.
How does Esau fare in the end? Years later, returning from servitude to Laban, Jacob encounters his brother, who is a wealthy man with family, land, and servants. But Jacob overlooks the obvious to peer into Esau’s soul. Having recognized, once, how “Esau’s weariness has sold his birthright,” Jacob now judges anew. “Looking into your face,” he says, “is like looking into the face of God.” (Genesis 33:10)
Jacob recognizes Esau’s depression as a thing of the past: his face, once weary, now shines with divine radiance. With his newfound peace of mind, Esau can even forgive his brother for taking advantage of him years before. He kisses Jacob, assures him he is content with life, and takes his leave.
Esau is a case study in hope. If he can be transformed into a mirror of the divine, so can we. But first we must decide that daily weariness is neither normal nor necessary. Happiness depends on the inner life of the soul, and the soul can find the most surprising cures. In our day, God stores up miracles in medical discoveries. If you are weary unto death, find a doctor. Decide you have had enough of sadness. It is never too late to learn to shine like God.