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Beans and Birthrights

Beans and Birthrights

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In this week's parshah we read of the birth of twins to Isaac and Rebecca. Jacob and Esau are very different from the moment they leave the womb. As they grow older, their disparate personality traits become increasingly obvious. Jacob is the "dweller of tents," a diligent Torah scholar, while Esau is a "skilled hunter" and a man of violence.

We also read how one day, when Esau returns from the hunt, exhausted and starving, he finds Jacob cooking a pot of lentils. Esau wants the beans; Jacob offers to give him the pottage in return for Esau's birthright. As the first-born twin, Esau would have been the one chosen to minister in G‑d's temple. Esau accepts the offer and the deal is done.

Fast-forward some 275 years. We're in the Book of Exodus now (4:22), and G‑d is sending Moses to Pharaoh to redeem His people. He describes them as b'ni bechori yisrael -- "My son, My first born, Israel." Rashi, quoting the Midrash, comments: "Here the Holy One Blessed is He affixed His seal to the sale of the birthright which Jacob purchased from Esau."

Here? It took G‑d so long to put His stamp of approval on a deal that was entered into hundreds of years earlier? Why only now?

The late Israeli Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi M.Z. Neriyah, offered this explanation: You can sell your birthright for beans, but you can't buy a birthright for beans. To throw away one's holy heritage is easy, but to claim it takes years of effort and much hard work.

He used the analogy of a war hero who earned a row of medals for bravery and courage under fire. Sadly, in his old age he was forced to sell his medals in order to survive. So someone else walks into the pawnbroker's and finds these war medals for sale, buys them and pins them to his chest. He might walk down the street, proud as a peacock. But does it have any meaning? We all know that this man is no hero. In fact, he is nothing more than a pathetic fool!

To wear the badge of "My firstborn Israel," the Jewish people had to be worthy of the honor. It wasn't enough that their father Jacob had purchased the birthright from an unworthy but willing seller. The children of Jacob needed to demonstrate that they understood what it meant to be Children of Israel.

When Jacob bought the birthright from Esau it was a legal deal. One wanted the beans, the other wanted the birthright. Fair and square. But did Jacob earn that hallowed title, or was he like the fellow who bought the war medals? Generations later, when his children had gone through the "smelting pit" of the Egyptian bondage and still, with amazing faith and tenacity, kept their heritage -- then they were deemed worthy of the honor of the birthright. Now, after the trial by fire, after the blood, sweat and tears of slavery, the great Notary on High, the heavenly Commissioner of Oaths, takes out that ancient document, the yellowed deed of sale that had been waiting for generations, and puts His official stamp and the wax seal on that document, and says, "Now now you are worthy of the birthright. Today you are My Son, My Firstborn, Israel."

There's a famous graffiti exchange that has much truth in it. Someone not too partial to our people had scrawled, "How odd of G‑d, to choose the Jews." And one of our own responded, "Actually, the Jews chose G‑d."

Being Jewish is indeed the birthright of every Jew. But it's not enough that G‑d chose us, we must choose G‑d. We need to earn our birthright by living as Jews. Chosenness is not license to snicker or condescend to others. It is far more responsibility than privilege.

It's not good enough that our parents and grandparents were good Jews, that my Zayde was a rabbi or a schochet and my Bobba made the world's best blintzes. What are we doing to earn our stripes?

Indeed, you can sell your birthright for beans. But you can't buy a birthright for beans.

Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn, New York. In 1976 he was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, as a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul since 1986, president of the South African Rabbinical Association, and a frequent contributor to Chabad.org. His book From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading was recently published by Ktav, and is available at Jewish bookshops or online.
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yehudis america November 24, 2011

see "toldot q and a", the last question. Reply

Anonymous Great Neck, NY via chabadgn.com November 7, 2010

I wish I were as confident as you that this was a fair deal. If it were fair why did Jacob need to deceive his father, why not just tell him that a fair deal was worked out.

Also - Esau was starving when he made the deal, isn't that a contract under duress? I know that I wouldn't hold my brother to any deal he made with me when he was starving. Reply

Anonymous Scottsdale, Az/USA via chabadofscottsdale.org November 5, 2010

While the timeline is certainly interesting, it might be nice to focus on one of the more important aspects of this D'var Torah, that we are each must make ourselves apart of the contract by educating ourselves and our children in the Torah, by engaging in mitzvot, prayer and acts of loving kindness.
Perhaps it is not enough to rely on the sale between the twins, or the suffering in Egypt as the seal. We must each actively claim our heritage daily through action. Reply

Shalom L.A., California November 4, 2010

It appears to me more than that.
Since this sentence was said by G-D @ the end of the egyptian exile of 210 years, plus Yaakov was 130 yr old when he came to egypt, minus his age of 15 yr old when he bought the birthright.
210+130-15=325 years later Reply

Anonymous Camarillo, CA November 3, 2010

I was not aware of how these transactions worked and how easy it was to escape the obligations of being born holy. If Esau could sell what was his birthright, and the Jews own it now, can Jews resell it to gentiles? Reply

Anonymous Toronto, ON November 19, 2009

The JPS Tanakh says, 'And He said unto Abram: 'Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; ' (Gen 15:13)

Considering Jacob still had to raise a family of twelve, and Joseph would first be married with children of his own before Israel became a stranger in Egypt, more than 275 years would have passed. No? Reply

Anonymous dallas, tx November 17, 2009

it wasn't just a pot of lentils that he bought the birthright. Jacob also paid him money, and that finalized the contract. So how can we say that G-d only "approved" of the sale hundreds of years later when they were slaves in Egypt- when it was already done. Reply

Ruby Bell Monroe , Georgia/Usa November 11, 2007

I loved the little poem. I have a friend who always aludes to himself as our Goyim, and often times he annoys me as well, nice to think that he annoys G-d as well. Reply

Margarita Sosa Mexico City, Mexico November 9, 2007

It was a beautiful reading, to remind ourselves that suffering does more good than evil when you are part of His chosen people; it enables you to become so humble you can be part of such a unique birthright.

Thank you for taking the time to write in such a way that Bible History makes sense and becomes part of a reader’s personal destiny.
Was the meal the price or the seal of the purchase?

I have understood that it was an honest purchase, money for birthright; the meal was just a thing you did after a good sale, peace treaty, and new covenant between two parties.

Muchas Gracias from Mexico Reply

gavin rome Johannesburg, South Africa November 12, 2004

Fantastic article, but the source of the quote about the oddness of choice was Ogden Nash who wrote

"How odd
of G-d
to choose
the Jews"

To which a Jewish riposte was the following
"Not so odd
you sod
the goyim
annoy Him" Reply

Moshe November 8, 2004

But the picture of coffee beans does'nt fit. Reply