5768 - #08


Esav, in responding to Yaakov Avinu’s request of him to sell the bechora, the rights of the first born, states that he goes to die so why does he need it. This explanation for why Esav sold the bechora demands further contemplation. Why does Esav refer to the fact that he will eventually die in his reason for not wishing to maintain the bechora? Rashi, Bereishit 25:31 points out that the issue for Yaakov was the impropriety of having someone, such as Esav, maintaining the right of service to God that was vested in the bechora. Thus he approached Esav to sell him the bechora and thus that right.1 It is not surprising that Esav would be amenable to such a transaction as we would expect him not to be interested in performing the service before God in bringing sacrifices – but why would Esav make mention of his eventual death? If anything, death usually turns someone towards the spiritual and not the momentary concerns of life. Strangely, in contemplating death, Esav does exactly the opposite of what would be expected and is further motivated to sell the bechora to Yaakov.

             This problem may actually be the reason why T.B. Baba Batra 16b states that Esav committed five sins on the day that he sold the birthright. 2 One of the sins that Esav committed was to deny the resurrection of the dead. If this was so, then in stating that he was going to die, Esav meant it in a final sense, that there was no life after this one and thus of what purpose would be the service of God. The gemara is actually informing us that the rejection of the bechora was simply Esav’s final act in the rejection of the realm of Divine. If there is no God, if there is no afterlife, what purpose is there for the sacrificial service; thus Esav is very happy to sell it to Yaakov. The Torah text is informing us that Esav did more that just simply sell the bechora; he rejected God. In saying that he was going to die anyway, Esav was really stating that he absolutely saw no value in being the one to serve God.

             The approach found in Rashi, Bereishit 25:32 is profoundly different. Rashi does not see Esav as one who rejects God and/or the realm of the Divine. Seeing Esav as someone who rejects the Divine realm is actually most problematic. Why would someone who does not believe in God be so grieved over not receiving a blessing from his father?3According to Rashi, Esav’s reason for rejecting the bechora is not that he, eventually, will die but rather that the acceptance of the responsibility to serve God could lead to death. Yaakov informs Esav that certain mistakes in the bringing of the sacrifices are punishable by death. It is in response to this information that Esav states that he is going to die and questions why he needs it. He is thus happy to pass on this responsibility and sell the bechora, with its rights and obligations in the service of God, to Yaakov. According to Rashi, Esav’s statement that he is going to die means that he was questioning why he should keep this obligation which included the potential for death if he made a mistake.  

             On the surface, Esav’s response may actually seem reasonable. The Torah, however, dismisses it outright. Involvement in the sacrificial service does present a challenge; a mistake can lead to punishment, even a punishment of death. Is it not acceptable to be cautious and not confront the possibility of error and its consequences? In critiquing Esav’s response, the Torah is obviously disagreeing, strongly disagreeing, with this position. In any position of risk, there is the possibility of success and the possibility of loss. To avoid the risk, and thereby not strive for the possibility of success because of the possibility of the loss, is an alternative. It is sometimes an alternative that prudence would demand of us to choose. In this case, though, the potential benefit of success far outweighed the potential loss; it was not a time to choose to avoid the risk. This was Esav’s mistake. He did not correctly value the right to serve God so that he would take this risk; he did not correctly recognize that the potential value of success far outweighed the chance that he would be punished for a mistake.

             This question of risk-taking is a fundamental issue within Torah thought. Many times the question emerges whether we should undertake certain behaviours, or enter into certain situations, where there is a potential for spiritual success yet also a potential for spiritual harm. Life itself represents such a question. God created us in this world -- and did not put us directly into the Future World -- so we would have the potential to earn our reward of the Future World, for it is better to have earned the benefits of the Future World than to have them simply given to us.4 But is there not also, thereby, the potential for the reward, chas v’shalom, not be earned? In creating us in this world, God’s answer must have been that it was worth the risk. That, though, is not always the case. Kohelet 5:4 states that it is better to not make an oath than make one and not fulfill it; essentially it is better to not take a risk in making an oath. T.B. Chullin 2a presents the opinion of Rabbi Meir that is even more emphatic: it is simply better to never make an oath. Even if one fulfills an oath, it is better never to have taken the risk of non-fulfillment by taking the oath in the first place.5 Sometimes, we must take the risk and sometimes we should not 

             In this case, though, we see a case where the avoidance of the risk was wrong. Esav did not want to take the risk of having to do the service before God which included a potential for a punishment of death if it was done incorrectly. This was a case for taking the risk; after all is was a responsibility that came with the bechora; this honoured position should not have been dismissed, especially not out of fear of not doing it properly. To do so meant that Esav did not recognize this honour. To do so meant that Esav did not recognize the potential benefits of taking the risk and serving God properly. He tried to side-step the responsibility and the honour. This could not be an attribute of a potential father of the Jewish nation.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


(1)  Of course, subsequent to Sinai and the vesting of the right to bring the sacrifices in the kehuna, the priesthood, (rather than the first born as it was before Sinai), it is not possible for a kohain to sell this right. A simple answer for how the right could be sold from Esav to Yaakov is that prior to Sinai this right was not fully vested in the first born so that he could sell it. See, however, Mizrachi.
See, further, Torah Temima, 25:29, notes 26-31.
See the absolute anguish in Esav’s words in Bereishit 27:38. It is hard to understand why Esav would be so broken by the loss of a bracha, if he did not believe that it had some value. See, also, T.B. Sanhedrin 101b which would seem to indicate that there was a divergence of opinion amongst Chazal in regard to Esav’s theological perspective.
See Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Da’at Tevunot based on the Zohar.
See, also, Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Nedarim 13:25.

(c) Nishma, 2007.

Return to top