When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man, who stayed in camp… Once, when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished or weary… Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” And Esau said, “I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?”… Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; and he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright. We read this well-known story in this week’s portion, Toldot, and we come to understand the power of weariness.
When at a recent Educator’s Conference in Boston, a group of us talked about sleep deprivation and its impact on our lives. We simply do not get enough sleep. Between the lures of our favorite taped shows, late-night television, the need to be current with our email, and the need to work longer and longer hours, none of us is getting sufficient rest, leading to all sorts of semi- irrational and, for some, nonproductive behavior. I can certainly vouch for a personal awareness of being, at times, simply exhausted. We know what it is to feel spent or drained, not only at the end of a day, but soon after we begin a new one.
We can therefore feel considerable sympathy for Esau when he allows Jacob to buy his firstborn privileges for a bowl of that famous “red stuff.” The “man of the outdoors” entered Jacob’s tent ayeif, “famished,” according to the Plaut translation. An alternative translation is “exhausted” or weary. Esau had been out hunting all day long and came home from the hunt wiped out, drained, and hungry. Etz Hayim states that “the Hebrew word ayef, traditionally translated as ‘faint,’ actually means to be “in desperate need of food and drink.”
Yet, upon reading the text more closely, one cannot help but feel that Esau’s exhaustion went beyond tired, aching limbs, and an empty belly. Indeed, even in English, the word “weary” can mean disillusioned. A hint that Esau’s weariness may have extended into the realm of mind and spirit is found in his off-handed reply to Jacob’s offer of lentil stew in exchange for Esau’s b’chorah, his firstborn rights: “I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?” Is Esau really such a simple man that he has no idea what the birthright means? Is he oblivious to the manipulation and contempt inherent in Jacob’s offer? Is he so worn down by the world, is his judgment so clouded, that he can say, “Man, I feel so bad, so run down that who cares about the birthright. Sure, take it!”
What is Esau tired of? It’s more than the work in the field. Esau knows more than perhaps we give him credit for. Rashi and other commentators observe that Esau spends time considering his birthright blessing. It is not simply an inheritance. The blessing also represents an obligation to the future—an opportunity to share in the creation of a legacy for subsequent generations and a commitment to the Jewish people and Jewish life.
Rashi comments that Esau’s exhaustion is more spiritual than physical. He is tired of the obligations of family life, tired of the responsibilities associated with Jewish living, and weary of the limitations placed on him daily by his pledge to the future. Would it not be easier simply to ignore tomorrow and live only for today? And so, with the stew as collateral, Esau abandons his future. More than opting out of his birthright, Esau ridicules it by trading it for a simple bowl of stew. It seems he wants to live only in and for a particular moment, deciding thus to trade his heritage for a bowl of “red stuff.”
How times have changed. The birthright blessing does not work that way for us today. No matter how weary we may be, we each carry this blessing—the blessing ultimately given to Jacob—as our inheritance. Unlike Esau, we are not free to squander it recklessly. Rather, it is our task to uphold our inheritance and do the best we can with our sacred responsibility to the people around us and to the community and to a better future.
We may find ourselves weary at the end of the day, ayeif, feeling spent. We, who have this calling to the Jewish world, can get very tired; we give, we worry; we can experience compassion fatigue – and may end up pretty exhausted. Here at Jeremiah, we try hard to be aware of each other’s state of mind for one another, check in and see what we can do, share our challenges with one who, at that moment, may be less weary. Esau was alone; we are not. We have each other and we are committed to be worthy of our inheritance.
As the many to’ldot, “genealogies,” in Genesis remind us, we are the descendants of countless generations. Like those to’ldot , when we recall the ones from whom we are descended, sometimes we just know names, a great-great aunt or grandparent, and sometimes we know stories or memories that teach us something more about who we are and what has given meaning to our own lives and the lives of people we know.
Take a moment to imagine a section of our people’s history beginning with Genesis 25:19, V ’eileh to’ldot, “This is the line” or “These are the generations,” the listing of each of our names. It’s rather weighty to think of ourselves as the ancestors from whom lines are traced. But as the many to’ldot in Genesis show us, whether we think of ourselves as linked to all humanity or just to our own family, someone in the future will trace themselves back to us. And time will tell whether we will be just a name or whether we will have a story attached to our name. At some point, we will join the ranks of our ancestors, and the legacy we leave will be determined by what we did yesterday, what we do today, and what we do tomorrow.
Our descendants will learn from our examples, positive and negative. Perhaps not so far in the future, a grandchild or great-grandchild of ours will turn to his parent, wide-eyed and curious, and ask, “When you were a kid, when you didn’t do well on a test, did grandpa get angry with you? Did savta help you with your homework? What was your favorite memory? Was she patient with you or did she yell?” What will the response be? What will the truth be?
Countless things we can’t even begin to imagine will occur during the remainder of our lifetimes. Yes, sometimes we will be weary; but we can find a balance in life. When we respond to the myriad of experiences set before us, we might consider that what we do may be included in v’eileh tol’dot, when the listing is of our own names. Let us be aware; let us think of how we want to be remembered. Each of us is an ancestor whose own stories—and those of our children and our children’s children—will become part of the ongoing story. Poor Esau. He couldn’t get beyond the moment; he perhaps lacked balance; he was simply ayeif.
May our exhaustion never completely wear us down that we forget the many new and extraordinary blessings and challenges that await us. May we be remembered in only the most positive terms and may the stories of our lives be ones that we can be proud of. Ken yihi ratzon.