Esau’s birthright and the importance of self-care
On rare occasions rabbis manage a message that, they are told, has actually saved lives. I once wrote such a piece about Esau and was so moved by the responses that I vowed I would recraft it to make new versions available every few years. Here is the latest. If you think it speaks to the lives of people you know, please send it to them, with my blessing.
The story is deceptively simple. Esau arrives home after an exhausting day’s hunt, smells Jacob’s cooking, and trades in his birthright for dinner.
But why would he do that? Why would anyone be so foolish as to give up a birthright for a single night’s stew?
The details of the story matter. Esau comes home, announcing, “I am weary (ayef).” Before giving him food, Jacob proposes a deal: “First, sell me your birthright.” Esau thinks, “I am at the point of dying. What good is my birthright?” And the deed is done.
Esau is a deeply troubled man. He will later be relegated to utter despair, when his myopic father mistakenly bestows the blessing meant for him upon his brother. “Have you no blessing left for me?” Esau sobs. But that tragic end is foreshadowed here around the campfire, when Esau cries out. “I am at the point of dying. What good is my birthright?”
Are we to believe that Esau, the mighty hunter, could not wrest some stew from his weak twin brother, or just go get it himself? Hardly. Listen to him again: “I am at the point of dying.”
Esau is depressed; so depressed that he despairs of life, to the point of losing all hope that even his birthright might ever matter.
When Jacob says, “Sell me your birthright,” he uses an unusual verbal form of the imperative “sell” (michrah). But the Hebrew consonants can also be pronounced “machrah,” “sold,” as if the decision to sell the birthright had already been made — made, says Nachmanides, by Esau’s “ayefut,” his “world-weariness.” On this reading, Esau arrives home at dark, his depression mounting with the setting sun. Jacob observes immediately that Esau’s “weariness has sold me the birthright.”
“Esau treated his birthright with contempt,” the Torah summarizes, not because he was too tired to think straight, but because his very soul was so world-weary that he had given up on life.
Thousands of readers will recognize Esau in themselves or in those they love. They look outwardly strong and able, but inside, they are weary unto death. Their own birthright — sunshine, laughter, friendship, life itself — seems worthless. People ask them to snap out of it, but they can’t. They can barely get out of bed in the morning.
But there is more to Esau’s story. Years later, Jacob encounters his brother one last time, and finds him happy, loved, wealthy, and thriving. Able, as before, to see below the surface, Jacob peers into Esau’s soul and announces, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God” (Genesis 33:10).
Esau’s depression has passed. His face, once weary, now shines with divine radiance. He kisses Jacob in love and forgiveness, and puts his dismal past behind him.
If Esau, the reviled also-ran in the family who loses both birthright and blessing, can be reborn internally, then so can we. Daily weariness is neither normal nor necessary. Happiness depends on the inner life of what we call (for lack of a better word) the soul, and the soul can quite miraculously find the most surprising cures, even “at the point of dying.”
The cures can come from anywhere and appear as mysteriously as the sickness did. But mostly, nowadays, God provides such miracles through medical discoveries. If you are weary unto death, then, do not give up. Start with a good doctor who understands you and will help you play the role of Esau in reverse: trade in your depression for your birthright, the right to shine like God.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and a professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.