Serving God: Right or Privilege?

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion


PARASHAT TOLDOT

SICHA OF HARAV AHARON LICHTENSTEIN SHLIT"A

Serving God: Right or Privilege?

Adapted by Dov Karoll with Avi Shmidman

 

"And Yaakov gave Esav bread and lentil soup, and he [Esav] ate, drank, got up and left, and Esav despised the bekhora (birthright)." (Bereishit 25:34)

The verse lists five different verbs in describing Esav's actions in this incident. Presumably, the verb that provides the most insight into understanding his behavior here is the last one, "va-yivez," generally translated "he despised."

Ibn Ezra explains that Esav arrived at "va-yivez" as a result of his assessment that the bekhora was not really worthwhile, because Yitzchak was not so rich anyway. Accordingly, he determined that giving up the bekhora did not constitute a major loss.

Ramban cites a different practical consideration: Esav thought that he would not attain the benefits of the bekhora in his lifetime, for he was a hunter, and he expected to die before Yitzchak.

Rashi, on the other hand, sees a more basic problem in Esav's behavior here, explaining that he disdained the priestly service of God that comes along with the bekhora.

This disagreement between the commentators reflects a difference of opinion regarding the nature of the bekhora. What is it that Esav is giving up? Is it a question of property and wealth, or is it the priestly service?

Regarding Rashi's explanation, there are actually conflicting sources regarding the issue of whether the firstborn were meant to serve as kohanim at this stage in history. On the one hand, there are sources that seem to indicate that the unique position of the bekhor (firstborn) stems from their salvation during the plague of the firstborn in Egypt. "For all the firstborn are Mine, from the day I smote all the firstborn of Egypt, I set aside every firstborn of Israel, from man to animal, they shall be Mine, says God" (Bemidbar 3:13). On the other hand, along the lines of Rashi's view here, the Rambam (Mishna commentary to Zevachim 14:4) states that from the time of Adam until the time of Moshe, priestly service was performed by the firstborn.

 

Returning to Esav: what is the nature of his disdain for the bekhora? The noun form of the verb "va-yivez" could be either "buz" or "bizayon." "Buz" is a relatively neutral, subjective noun, expressing one's personal feelings toward the object. "Buz" refers to the person and not to the object. The person does not accord the object great significance; perhaps he does not afford it the recognition it deserves. This is the approach taken by Ibn Ezra and Ramban. On this approach, Esav did not relate to the bekhora as significant; he did not value it sufficiently.

"Bizayon," on the other hand, is a more negative approach, and is directed at the object itself. "Bizayon" toward an object undermines the object itself. This is reflected in Rashi's explanation of Esav's behavior: Esav despised the service of God, and undermined its value.

What was Yaakov's motivation and justification for this seemingly questionable behavior? Yaakov and Esav had different, indeed opposite, understandings of the nature of the bekhora. Is bekhora a matter of giving or receiving? Is it an honor and privilege one receives, or a responsibility and an investment? Esav was looking at what he stood to gain from the bekhora, arriving at the conclusion that it was not worthwhile, based on the practical assessment described by the Ibn Ezra or Ramban. Yaakov, on the other hand, wanted to take the responsibility upon himself. He sought the zekhut, privilege, as well as the responsibility of service and servitude to God.

From Yaakov's perspective, Esav's attaining the bekhora would have disastrous consequences, for it would diminish and damage the bekhora.

Looking back at the significance of the bekhora in the aftermath of Yaakov receiving it, we can understand this perspective. God refers to the Jewish people as "beni bekhori Yisrael," Israel, My son, My bekhor (Shemot 4:22). While this bekhora is accompanied by certain privileges, it is primarily a matter of commitment and responsibility. The term "am segulla," a chosen nation, comes together with "am kadosh," a holy nation, in several places in the Torah (Devarim 6:7, 14:2, 26:18-19), indicating that the special status of the Jewish people is contingent on proper behavior. At the foot of Mount Sinai, before the receiving of the Torah, God tells the people, "If you listen to My voice and observe My covenant," then "you shall be segulla, chosen to Me from among all the nation… and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a goy kadosh, a holy nation…" (Shemot 19:5-6).

Being God's chosen nation provides the Jewish people with a tremendous responsibility, and only upon the fulfillment of these duties do the privileges of "am segulla" follow. Only if we are an "am kadosh" are we worthy to be the "am segulla." As descendants and successors of our patriarch Yaakov, we need to show the willingness to accept this responsibility and commitment, and then we can reap the benefits of the bekhora as well. We should not approach this special status of bekhora from the perspective of receiving honor and wealth, whether physical or spiritual. Yaakov desired to be the one to carry out the service in the Temple as a responsibility, fulfilling God's will, and not as a privilege. We also need to look to serving God, continuing the path of our patriarch Yaakov, as fulfilling our duty and responsibility to God.

(Originally delivered on leil Shabbat, Parashat Toledot 5762 [2001].)

 


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