This week’s Torah portion records the famous story of Esav selling the birthright to his younger brother Yaacob for some lentil soup. But what is lesser known is the exact nature of this birthright that Esav sold to Yaacob. The Midrash [1] explains that the birthright involved the right to serve Hashem in His Sanctuary full time. In other words, to be able to lead a spiritually fulfilling and meaningful life, as opposed to a life in which the focus is solely on materialism and pleasure-seeking.

Now we can understand that Esav wasn’t interested in the spiritual “thing”. He just wanted to live la vida loca. After all, why bother with unimportant, irrelevant issues such as the meaning of life and whether or not there is a Higher Being Who has a plan and a destiny for our lives, when you can just spend your days running after all the possible pleasures and thrills you can find until you die?!

But, still, to give away the whole birthright for a little lentil soup? It doesn’t make much sense. He could have at least bargained with Yaacob for a brand new Ferrari or a trip to Eilat!

To answer this question, we first need to know a basic truth that the Torah teaches us about human nature.  Angels are referred to as ohmdim (standing), meaning that they are static and that the level that they start on in life is the level in which they remain. As opposed to that, human beings who are graced with a living soul, never remain at the same spiritual level. We are either growing spiritually, or we are deteriorating. This means to say that for spiritual matters we are never static. [A wise person once said that, according to the Jewish outlook, life is like a down escalator – if you don’t try to go up, you will automatically be going down.]

This means that there are two types of people; those who want to grow and those want to remain the same, exactly where they are, which, of course, means that they will ultimately decline spiritually.

The Sheim Mi’Shmuel (Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein) explains that these two types of personalities are represented by Yaacob and Esav. The name Esav comes from the Hebrew word asui [2], meaning fully formed or made. At birth Esav came out with a full head (and body) of hair, teeth and was mature  beyond his infant years. Yaacob’s name is related to the Hebrew word ekev, which means heel [3]. Their names reflected their essence (as names will always do, according to the Kabbalah  and the Gemara [4]). Esav saw himself as a complete and finished product with no need or interest in growth. Yaacob, on the other hand, perceived himself to be at the heel, or bottom, as far as his spiritual growth and maturation was concerned. He felt that he had a long way to go and that there was so much to learn.

If we feel like we need to grow spiritually, never being complacent about where we are holding presently, then we are like Yaacob. Whenever an opportunity such as a Torah class presents itself for us to learn more about the bigger questions of life, we’ll grab it – much the same way Yaacob seized the opportunity to purchase the birthright and all the spirituality contained within it. But if, G-d forbid, we are static as far as our Judaism is concerned, and we don’t feel a need to grow in any way, then we are taking Esav’s lead.

Sometimes we’re presented with great opportunities to explore what it means to be Jewish – like an exciting seminar about dating, marriage and love from a Torah perspective, or a shiur (lecture) about how to correct our character traits, or a dynamic speaker talking about the spiritual roots of anti-Semitism – but we pass it up to watch the ballgame. Or we have a chance to expose ourselves and our kids to a fun and exciting Jewish program at the local synagogue, but we pass it up to play a round of golf. This behavior emulates the character and personality of Esav. The type that feels like he knows everything he needs to know about Judaism, and that there’s no real value or gain to be had from attending another Torah class. So why not trade it all for some lentil soup – if it tastes good.

To grow or not to grow…. that is the Jewish question. But it is a question we can’t afford to leave unanswered.


[1] Midrash HaGadol 25:28.

[2] See Rashi at Bereshit 25:25.

[3] See Midrash Lekach Tov.

[4] Yomah 83b.

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