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.