November 14, 2017
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #1093, Parsha Thought, VaYeitzei


Esau and Jacob’s rivalry began even before they were born. The Torah relates that they began their struggle in their mother’s womb. At their birth, Jacob emerged holding on to Esau’s heel. Rashi explains that he was trying to emerge first so he could enjoy the status of the first-born.

The Torah then jumps forward in time and relates:

“Jacob was cooking lentils, when Esau came from the field, exhausted. Esau says to Jacob, ‘Pour some of this red stuff (down my throat) because I’m exhausted’… Jacob said, ‘Sell me your birthright like daylight.’”

Esau happily obliges and says,

“I am going to die, why I need this birthright.”

After selling him the birthright unconditionally, Esau consumed the lentils:

“Jacob gave Esau bread and lentils, and he ate and drank. Then he got up and left. Esau despised the birthright.”

Why was it necessary for the Torah to tell us that he ate and drank, got up and left? Why not just state that Jacob gave Esau the lentils? It would have been obvious that he ate them and, after consuming his meal, that he got up and left.

Another question: Jacob gave Esau bread and lentils; there was no mention of a drink. Yet, the Torah states that Esau ate and drank. What is the significance of adding that he drank?


To answer these questions, it is necessary for us to understand that this episode is emblematic of the spiritual struggle between the forces of evil and holiness.

This narrative shows us how Esau repudiated everything that was holy to his parents, Isaac and Rebecca, as well as his grandparents, Abraham and Sarah. His show of contempt for his birthright was his way of cutting his ties to the legacy of Abraham, leaving that to his brother Jacob and the Jewish people.

Esau, our Sages reveal, denied that there is a future beyond this world. Specifically, he denied the Resurrection of the Dead that will take place in the Messianic Era. His life centered on the here and now, without connection to the past or the future.

Our Sages also reveal that Esau’s weariness on the day he sold his birthright to Jacob was not simply the natural feeling that comes after a long day’s work. He was weary with exhaustion because he had just come from a crime spree.

Every detail in this brief exchange between the brothers reflects Esau’s departure from the path of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Esau’s disgraceful sale of the birthright is manifest in every detail of the narrative, including what he did after the sale.

To understand Esau’s sins, it is important to turn to the Oral tradition passed down by our Sages that fills in the gaps in the story:


First, our Sages reveal that Jacob was preparing lentils because Abraham had just passed away and Isaac was in mourning. It was the custom to give lentils to mourners.

Despite the fact that the family was grieving for Abraham, Esau was nowhere to be found; he was out in the field “hunting.” He had actually gone on a one-man crime wave, committing murder and other heinous crimes. Esau made a 180 degree turn away from the direction of his parents and grandparents.

To add insult to injury, Esau now had the temerity to demand partaking of those lentils of mourning; the very food that reminded his family of their loss was devoured to satisfy the appetite he built up during his criminal activity.

If there was any doubt about Esau’s total insensitivity and cynicism, one just needs to see how he asked for the lentils. Esau asked Jacob to pour them down his throat. Esau not only commits sacrilege by wanting these lentils, he wants to consume them in a most uncouth and disrespectful fashion.

His attitude toward the lentils was his way of declaring, “What’s the point of grieving? Who cares about Abraham and his memory?” In this moment, Esau effectively denied the immortality of the soul. To Esau, Abraham and his legacy were dead; no longer relevant in any way.

In Esau’s mind, life is measured by the here and now and not by the past or the future. With his behavior and attitude, Esau severed his ties to what he considered the anachronistic ways of Abraham. In so doing, he foreswore any desire for the glorious future of those who would follow in the footsteps of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs.

Elements of Esau’s attitude can be found, albeit in far more subtle ways, in the Galus-exile mentality that so many of us harbor. We too are liable to forget our connection to the past and be content to live in the here and now, overlooking that our journey is not over until the Redemption.


But, it doesn’t end there.

By detailing Esau’s behavior, his eating, drinking, getting up and leaving, the Torah wants us to know that when a person approaches life with an Esau-exile attitude, every ancillary detail is considered to be part of the sinful experience.

Esau’s eating of the lentils, although unremarkable – for Jacob did not accede to his request to pour it down his throat, but instead placed it before him – was an important element of his rebelliousness.

The Torah’s need to detail the manner in which he wanted to eat the lentils, bought with his sacred birthright, suggests that this was not a fleeting moment of weakness. He had already internalized this heresy; it had become an integral part of him. He ate it and owned it.

Even the drink, which Jacob did not offer as part of the meal associated with Esau’s demand, nevertheless was considered sinful because it was part of Esau’s meal and contributed to his iniquity.

While drinking water does not necessarily nourish in the manner of food, it helps distribute food’s nutrients to the entire body. Esau’s rebellion was not simply internalized in his psyche; it permeated his entire being.

Esau got up and left his sacrilegious feast with a sense of satisfaction. He had successfully unburdened himself of the birthright’s moral obligations. When he finally left, it was without remorse at having given away so much for so little; his leaving became a part of his transgression.


A parallel can be drawn to the realm of goodness and holiness.

When a person resolves to come closer to G-d, and while so doing engages in various tangential behaviors, every related act is considered to be part of that Mitzvah, not just the basic commitment.

To illustrate:

When we make a pledge of tzedakah, every associated movement, from removal of our wallet from our pocket to actually handing the money to a needy recipient, is regarded as a Mitzvah. Indeed, even the ancillary details are considered to be part of the Mitzvah, for which one will receive a full reward.

When one is engaged in the performance of a Mitzvah, the more action that is involved in the preparation, embellishment and extension of the Mitzvah, the more positive it becomes.

While efficiency is a virtue when it comes to mundane activities and needs, in matters of holiness the virtue is enhanced in relation to the time and energy expended.

One practical example cited in Jewish law:

If one can choose between two synagogues to attend—everything else being equal—it is preferable to go to the more distant one because it involves more effort and more time.

Another example from Maimonides:

It is preferable to give smaller sums of tzedakah frequently than to give it in one lump sum. [Obviously, in giving tzedakah, the main concern has to be the benefit of the recipient. If the needy individual or institution needs the money now, we would obviously not try to give it incrementally if we are capable of giving it in one lump sum.]

Since Esau did not believe in the future, the antidote to that evil is the belief in the imminent coming of Moshiach, the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash and the Resurrection of the Dead.

Our positive affirmation should manifest itself in the four metaphoric steps of eating, drinking, getting up and leaving.

“Eating” means internalizing that belief. The Talmud states that even a thief can pray to G-d for success in his criminal endeavor. While his faith is real, it is superficial; it hasn’t been internalized. We internalize our faith by learning Torah, specifically concerning the subject of that faith. If our faith in G-d lacks depth, then we study the texts that deal with G-d’s existence and unity. If our faith in Moshiach and Redemption is superficial, then we focus on the subject of Moshiach and Redemption in Torah.

“Drinking” refers to the distribution of the metaphorical food, i.e., allowing the belief to permeate our entire being. One’s belief in G-d and in the coming of Moshiach has to be incorporated in our mind, heart and behavior. We can’t just think about Moshiach; we have to breathe and act on the reality of it. We must now endeavor to live our lives as if we are already deep into the Messianic Age.

“Getting up” refers to spiritual growth. Our spiritual pursuits, although commendable, must be inspired by our commitment to making the world around us a dwelling-place for G-d, paving the way for the Redemption.

When we take leave of events and experiences that tie us to the G-dly future and engage in the exigencies of the moment, we must still remain rooted to the awareness of the future.

It is no coincidence that the word for lentils in Hebrew, adashim, has the numerical equivalent of “Moshiach ben David!”

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (
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