Yaakov, Yitzchak, and the Purchase of the Birthright
Summarized by Binyamin Fraenkel
Translated by Kaeren Fish
“A plain man”
“And the boys grew, and Esav was a cunning hunter, a man of the field, and Yitzchak was a plain man, dwelling in tents. And Yitzchak loved Esav, for he relished his venison, but Rivka loved Yaakov. And Yaakov cooked pottage, and Esav came from the field, and he was faint. And Esav said to Yaakov, Give me to swallow, I pray you, of that red pottage, for I am faint; therefore his name was called Esav.
And Yaakov said, Sell me this day your birthright. And Esav said, Behold, I am at the point of death, and what profit shall this birthright do to me? And Yaakov said, Swear to me this day. And he swore to him, and he sold his birthright to Yaakov. Then Yaakov gave Esav bread and pottage of lentils, and he ate and drank, and rose up, and went his way; thus Esav despised the birthright.” (Bereishit 25:27-34)
Our parasha begins with the birth of Yaakov and Esav, continues with a description of the “cunning hunter, a man of the field” and the “plain man, dwelling in tents,” and then goes on to record the sale of the birthright, to illustrate the sharp contrast between the two brothers in terms of their priorities and their behavior.
In this story, Yaakov comes across as someone who is not so “plain” or “simple” after all: one might almost call him manipulative, exploiting Esav’s exhaustion to obtain the birthright. A similar impression is conveyed later on, when Yaakov disguises himself as Esav in order to obtain Yitzchak's blessing, but the focus of this sicha will be the sale of the birthright.
Yishmael or Yitzchak – who is Avraham’s successor?
Let us consider another story in Sefer Bereishit that is similar in many ways, also involving a struggle over the birthright: the story of Yitzchak and Yishmael. The text records that at the celebrations on the “day of Yitzchak’s weaning,” Sara observed Yishmael “mocking” (metzachek), and she tells Avraham to banish him. Although Avraham is greatly troubled by this prospect, God commands him to listen to Sara.
In the Tosefta (Sota, chapter 6) we find:
“Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai said, There are four things which Rabbi Akiva teaches, where my opinion makes more sense than his does:
Rabbi Akiva taught, ‘And Sara saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Avraham, mocking’ – The ‘mocking’ referred to here alludes to idolatry… This teaches us that Sara saw Yishmael building altars and trapping grasshoppers, and offering them up with incense as idolatrous worship.
R. Eliezer, son of R. Yossi ha-Gelili, said: The ‘mocking’ referred to here alludes to sexual immorality… This teaches that Sara saw Yishmael climbing over fences and violating women.
R. Yishmael said, The ‘mocking’ referred to here alludes to bloodshed… This teaches that Sara saw Yishmael taking up a bow and arrow and shooting towards Yitzchak…
But I say, heaven forfend that such things would happen in the home of that righteous man. Is it possible that in the home of someone concerning whom it is written, ‘For I know him, that he will command his household… to keep the way of God,’ there would be idolatry and sexual immorality and bloodshed? Rather, the ‘mocking’ referred to here pertains solely to the issue of inheritance. When Yitzchak was born to Avraham, everyone was happy and said, ‘A son has been born to Avraham; a son has been born to Avraham! He will inherit the world and take a double portion.’ Yishmael mocked in his heart, saying, ‘Don’t be fools; don’t be fools! I am the firstborn, and it is I who will take a double portion.’ [That he said this] may be deduced from Sara’s words – ‘For the son of the handmaid will not inherit.’ Hence my interpretation makes more sense than that of R. Akiva.”
According to the teachings in the Tosefta concerning R. Akiva’s opinion, Sara was concerned about Yitzchak’s spiritual development. But according to R. Shimon bar Yochai’s opinion, why did God command Avraham to listen to Sara? Does God require that Yishmael be banished solely on the basis of some concern that Yishmael will receive a greater portion of Avraham’s wealth as an inheritance? Furthermore, it is clear that Yishmael was mistaken; he was the son of a handmaid, while Yitzchak was the son of Avraham’s wife; it is therefore beyond question that Yitzchak would receive a double portion. Why, then, does R. Shimon bar Yochai insist that his opinion makes more sense than that of R. Akiva?
From Sara’s statement following her witnessing of Yishmael “metzachek” – “Banish this handmaid and her son, for the son of this handmaid will not inherit with my son, Yitzchak” (21:10) – it seems that what concerns her is indeed the matter of Yitzchak inheriting rather than Yishmael. We must therefore delve deeper in order to understand the significance of this inheritance.
The son takes the place of his father
Anyone who has studied the chapter “yesh nochalin” in Massekhet Bava Batra knows that the significance of inheritance lies not in the financial realm, but rather in what it symbolizes – the idea of continuing the legacy of the father.
When a son inherits from his father, he takes on not only the father’s wealth and assets, but also the commitment to be his father’s continuation in this world. The successor of Avraham is not Yitzchak but rather “Avraham’s son.”
What the midrash is teaching, in its discussion of who will take a double portion of the inheritance, has little to do with the sum of money that each of the sons will receive; rather, it is telling us something about identifying the “firstborn” – the son who will take the father’s place in the spiritual sense when he dies, and become responsible for the entire family.
Sara tells Avraham, “For the son of this handmaid shall not inherit with my son, with Yitzchak.” Accordingly, Avraham ensures that Yitzchak alone will inherit: “And to the sons of Avraham’s concubines Avraham gave gifts and he sent them away from his son Yitzchak, while he yet lived, eastward, to the east country” (Bereishit 25:6).
According to both Rabbi Akiva and R. Shimon bar Yochai, Sara’s main concern was that no one else but Yitzchak would inherit from Avraham. The additional point made by R. Akiva is that it was as a result of Yishmael’s actions that she decided that he was not worthy of inheriting.
The attitude towards birthright and continuity
We can offer a similar explanation for Yaakov’s conduct in our parasha. Concerning the verse, “And Yaakov cooked pottage,” the midrash teaches that on this day Avraham died, and Yaakov was preparing a traditional mourning meal of lentil pottage.
“And Esav came from the field” – Esav is not interested in the whole business of family, responsibility, and concern for the home. What interests him is going out to the field to engage in his pursuits and eating when he gets home. Therefore Yaakov tells him, “Sell me this day your birthright.” This is not an instance of extortion, a shady exchange of the birthright for a pottage. (The language of the text itself also indicates that Yaakov gave Esav food before raising the subject of the birthright: at the end of this episode we read, ‘Ve-Yaakov natan le-Esav lechem’ – “Yaakov had given Esav bread,” in the pluperfect tense, indicating that he had already given him the food when the exchange took place, rather than the more common ‘Va-yiten Yaakov…’ – which would indicate that it was at that point that he gave it to him.)
Yaakov effectively tells Esav, “You yourself know that you do not function as the firstborn; you take no responsibility at home and are not worthy of being the firstborn.” For this reason Yaakov wants the birthright for himself.
Esav’s response to Yaakov would seem to encapsulate his worldview. “Behold, I am at the point of death” (or, more literally, “I am going to die”) – a statement with unexpected (and apparently unintended) depth. A superfluous reading would suggest that Esav means that he will die of hunger right here and now if he does not eat the pottage. On a deeper level, he states that one day, no matter what, he will die. Esav cares nothing for continuity after his death. He shows himself to be unworthy of continuing the spiritual legacy of Avraham and Yitzchak. Indeed, the episode concludes with the words, “And Esav despised the inheritance.”
The same idea is repeated throughout the rest of parashat Toldot. In all that Yitzchak does, he continues the path of Avraham, his father: “And Yitzchak dug again the wells of water which they had dug in the days of Avraham, his father” (26:18). Yitzchak is not merely a passive continuation, but rather “digs again” – he actively continues the path of his father.
This idea would seem to be conveyed by Chazal’s teaching on the verse, “Moshe commanded us the Torah, the inheritance of the congregation of Yaakov” (Devarim 33:4). According to the plain reading of the verse, the Torah is an “inheritance” that “comes down” to us; we are passive recipients. But Chazal teach, “Do not read ‘morasha’ (inheritance), but rather ‘meorasa’ (betrothed).” Betrothal is not a passive state; it involves an act of acquisition.
In every generation we are commanded to “inherit” the Torah (in accordance with the plain reading of the verse) – not in the passive sense, but rather through active efforts to acquire it for ourselves, following the example set for us by Yitzchak and Yaakov.
(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat parashat Toldot 5775 .)