“And Esav said to Yaakov, “Pour into me, now, from this very red food for I am exhausted.” Therefore, he is called Edom”. (Parshat Toldot; 25:30)
Esav comes home from the fields. He is exhausted and famished. Yaakov is cooking a red soup. Esav asks Yaakov to give him the soup. Yaakov asks Esav to sell him his rights as firstborn in exchange for the food. Esav agrees. Through this incident, Yaakov acquired Esav’s birthright. The Torah quotes Esav’s exact words. He refers to the soup as “very red food.” The Hebrew word Esav used to refer to the “very red food” is adom. The Torah explains that Esav acquired the name Edom as a result of this incident. Edom is derived from the term adom, Esav’s term for the red food. Apparently, the Torah attributes some importance to Esav’s manner of referring to the soup. He called it “very red food.” The Torah includes this detail in relating the incident. This detail is further stressed through the name Edom. Giving this name to Esav provides a permanent reminder of this detail of the incident. Of course, this raises a question. Why is this aspect of the incident so crucial? Why does the Torah endeavor to memorialize Esav’s reference to Yaakov’s soup?
Various answers are given to this question. One of the most unique responses is provided by Nachmanides. He argues that, in fact, there is no specific significance to the color of Yaakov’s soup. The Torah does not intend to memorialize this detail of the incident. Instead, the Torah wishes to communicate an important message about Esav. Esav was not fit to be Yitzchak’s spiritual heir. He was completely absorbed in the material world. He was instinctually motivated. This caused him to sell his birthright for a bowl of soup. In order to accomplish this objective, the Torah gives Esav a name that recalls this incident. The name Edom accomplishes this goal. Esav referred to the soup as “very red food.” The name Edom is derived from Esav’s reference. In short, the color of the food is not important. However, the color provides a basis for creating a name for Esav. This name is designed to recall this incident.
Nachmanides’ insight provides a solution for another interesting problem. The Torah generally refers to the land settled by Esav and his descendants as the land of Edom. Why is this land not referred to as the land of Esav?
The name Edom represents an idea. Esav sold his birthright. He abandoned the right to become Yaakov’s spiritual heir. Therefore, he and his descendants do not have a right to the land of Israel. His land is the land of Edom. In other words, the Torah is stressing that the land of Edom belongs to Esav’s descendants. They have no claim on the land of Israel.
“And Yaakov gave Esav bread and a soup of lentils. And he ate, drank, arose and went. And Esav rejected the birthright of the firstborn.” (Beresheit 25:34)
Why was Esav willing to sell his birthright to Yaakov? The commentaries offer a number of explanations. Rashi offers two explanations. He explains that the birthright was essentially the right to the priesthood. Esav was not interested in this position. According to Rashi’s first explanation, this was because Esav realized that the priesthood would eventually be transferred to Shevet Leyve. The second explanation is that Esav recognized that the priesthood includes various restrictions. Violation of these restrictions is, in some instances, punished with death. Esav was not interested in this burden.
Rashi’s comments present some difficulties. However, the theme is clear. As firstborn, Esav had the right to the priesthood. He simply was not interested in rising to an essentially spiritual position. Nachmanides offers another explanation. His explanation is based upon Esav’s own words. Esav tells Yaakov he will sell him the birthright. He explains that he is destined to die. Therefore, the birthright will not provide him any benefit. Nachmanides begins by explaining Esav’s comment that he is destined to die. He infers that Esav lived a dangerous life. He constantly sought thrills and placed himself in dangerous situations. This was the root of Esav’s keen interest in hunting.
Esav’s personal goal was to maximize the intensity of pleasure and excitement in his life. He did not expect to live a long life. In fact, Esav did not expect to outlive his father, Yitzchak. Nachmanides further explains that the birthright would only become significant with Yitzchak’s death. The right gave the firstborn preference as an heir. Therefore, Esav did not expect to ever benefit from the birthright. Esav sold it to Yaakov because it was of little value to him. The comments of the Targum Yerushalmi seem to support Nachmanides’ explanation. The Tagrum Yerushalmi explains that in selling the birthright, Esav rejected the concept of the afterlife and the resurrection of the dead. Superficially, there is no evidence of this heresy in the pesukim. However, according to Nachmanides, the Targum Yerushalmi can be understood. Esav sold his birthright because he was completely focused on his material and temporal existence. He wanted to maximize his thrills in this world. He was not at all concerned with eternal existence. He did not consider the impact of his behavior upon his soul or the afterlife. Implicit in his decision to sell the birthright were a rejection of the afterlife and the resurrection of the dead.
Rabbaynu Avraham Ibn Ezra offers a controversial explanation of Esav’s motives. He explains that Esav perceived the birthright as a claim to an additional portion of Yitzchak’s possessions. Yitzchak was poor. Esav concluded that the birthright was of little value. Ibn Ezra offers a number of proofs that Yitzchak was poor. First, Esav earned his father’s affection through providing him with delicacies. Were Yitzchak wealthy, he would not have been dependant upon Esav for these foods. Second, Yaakov later disguised himself as Esav. He borrowed Esav’s fine clothing in order to complete the deception. The son of a wealthy man would not need to borrow another’s princely wardrobe. He would have his own expensive clothing. Third, eventually, Yaakov fled his father’s home. The Torah creates the impression that he left as a pauper. Why did his loving mother, Rivka, not provide Yaakov with money? Apparently, there was not much wealth in the household. Ibn Ezra responds to an important objection to his thesis. How could the Almighty allow a tzadik a righteous person to live in poverty? Ibn Ezra responds that wealth is not one of the perfections of the tzadik. Yitzchak was not the only tzadik to live in poverty. Eliyahu, the prophet, suffered the same fate. Ibn Ezra further explains that we cannot know the reason the Almighty denied Yitzchak wealth. Hashem also allowed Yitzchak to lose his eyesight. The Almighty had some reason for allowing Yitzchak to experience this affliction. Similarly, because of considerations that are less than obvious, He deprived Yitzchak of wealth.
Ibn Ezra’s comparison of Yitzchak’s poverty to his blindness deserves some further consideration. Ibn Ezra refers to the blindness as a secret, or mystery. He explains that we cannot understand these issues. Is Ibn Ezra positing that we cannot understand the reason for the blindness? It seems that the Torah, itself, offers some explanation! Later in the parasha, Yaakov and Rivka conspire to deceive Yitzchak. Yaakov disguises himself as Esav. He stands in Esav’s place before Yitzchak. Yitzchak bestows on Yaakov the blessing he intends for Esav. The Torah introduces this incident by explaining that, in his old age, Yitzchak was blind. The implication is that this blindness played a fundamental role in allowing Yaakov to secure the blessing. It certainly did have a reason and purpose! It seems that Ibn Ezra is not claiming that we cannot have any understanding of these issues. Instead, Ibn Ezra contends that our understanding is limited. We can, perhaps, identify the function of Yitzchak’s blindness. However, we cannot comprehend the justice of Hashem’s treatment of Yitzchak. Where is the justice in the righteous experiencing blindness? We cannot answer this question. This interpretation of Ibn Ezra’s comments implies that we, at some level, can explain Yitzchak’s poverty. As in the case of his blindness, we cannot hope to understand the justice of his poverty. However, we can identify some purpose served by this poverty. What is this purpose? Ibn Ezra compares the poverty to Yitzchak’s blindness. The blindness enabled Yaakov to receive the blessing intended for Esav. Perhaps, Yitzchak’s poverty served the purpose of providing Yaakov with the opportunity to purchase the birthright. The poverty caused Esav to conclude that the birthright was valueless. Therefore, he willingly abandoned this right to Yaakov.
“And he said, “I have become old and I do not know the day of my death.” (Beresheit 26:2)
Yitzchak explains that he wishes to bestow the blessing now because he is old. He does not know when his life will end. Rashbam explains that Yitzchak wanted to transmit this blessing personally. He must act while alive. At his advanced age, he felt compelled to act. If he did not now bestow the blessing, he might lose the opportunity. Sforno offers a very different explanation for Yitzchak’s decision to act at this time. He observes that Yaakov also blessed his children close to his death. Moshe blessed Bnai Yisrael at the end of his life. Apparently, these tzadikim felt that this time was specifically appropriate for the bestowal of their blessings. Why is this time special? Sforno explains as a person ages, the individual has the opportunity to advance spiritually. The allure of the material world fades. The physical desires, which may have influenced the person in youth, are now viewed as passing fancy. Faced with death, the importance of the brief period spent in the material world decreases. One can use this opportunity to examine values. This examination should lead to a reemphasis of the spiritual. In a tzadik, this is a natural transition. Any attachment to the material world fades with age, and the spiritual element of the personality becomes more pronounced. The bestowing of a blessing is a spiritual endeavor. The blessing requires that the benefactor enter into a very close spiritual relationship with the Almighty. In order to achieve this relationship, the individual must be able to forsake the attraction of the material world. This becomes easier to achieve in old age and with the approach of death. This is the reason these tzadikim waited for this point in their lives to bestow their blessings.
Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 25:30.
Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 25:32.
Sefer Beresheit 25:32. Targum Yerushalmi, Sefer Bersheit 25:34.
Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 25:34.
Sefer Bersheit 27:1.
Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 26:2.
Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 26:2.
Rabbi Bernie Fox has served on the faculty of Northwest Yeshiva High School since 1980. He was appointed Head of School in 1986. Rabbi Fox is a member of the first smichah class of Yeshiva Bnai Torah of Far Rockaway and earned Masters of Business Administration Degree from Long Island University, Brooklyn.