Eisav’s Five Sins

Eisav, Jacob’s older twin, nonchalantly sold his birthright to Jacob for a pot of lentils in this week’s parsha. The Torah considered his act so egregious that it concludes this episode with the words “And Eisav disgraced the birthright.” If there were any doubts about his disregard, and even contempt, for the privilege of being the first born, they were completely dispelled when Eisav said nary a word of protest or regret after he had consumed his meal. It is only decades later, when Jacob wrests Isaac’s blessings from him, that Eisav raises Cain about Jacob’s appropriation of the birthright.

Our Oral Tradition, preserved in the Talmud (Bava Basra 16b), reports that Eisav had actually committed five major crimes on the day he exchanged his birthright for a plate of “red stuff”: “He violated a betrothed maiden, committed murder, denied G‑d’s existence, denied the Resurrection of the Dead and he disgraced the birthright.”

Commentators are puzzled as to why the Written Torah would single out what appears to be the least reprehensible of his transgressions, the disgracing of the birthright, while not mentioning a word about his other, far more heinous, crimes.

 The Liberation

 One way to clarify this omission is to understand the deeper meaning of the birthright that was so precious to Jacob and so insignificant to Eisav.

 When G‑d sent Moses to Pharaoh to demand liberation for the Jewish people, Moses stated: “This is what G‑d said; “Israel is My son, My firstborn.” Rashi relates a Midrashic explanation to link this declaration that the Jewish people are G‑d’s “firstborn” with Jacob’s purchase of the birthright: “Here G‑d signed on the birthright that Jacob purchased from Eisav.”

 The association of G‑d’s demand to liberate the Jews in Egypt with the birthright Jacob purchased from Eisav, allows us to infer that our Redemption (liberation from Galus) hinges on our role as firstborn. Jacob prophetically realized that possession of the firstborn’s privilege would enable his progeny to get out of Egypt and all other subsequent periods of exile.

Being the firstborn was not only a matter of biological and chronological precedence; it also carried a profound spiritual potential to overcome any and all obstacles.

Double and Infinity

The potency of this ability is symbolized by the law that grants a biological firstborn a double portion of his father’s inheritance. The very concept of “double” here is related to Redemption. The Midrash cites five examples where the Torah doubles up on a key word. The idea of liberation is hinted in each of these repetitive statements. The most familiar liberation-repetition is the one G‑d used for the Exodus from Egypt: “Remembered, I have remembered.”

 The Rebbe explains that to break through all the barriers that exist we must have “double” power. “Double” does not just mean twice as much; it also expresses the idea of an idea or force that is constantly replicating itself. Hence, the power of liberation is synonymous with an extended meaning of “double”, i.e., infinity. This is the power vested in the birthright that Jacob prized and Eisav disdained.

 Idolaters Yes but Assimilationists No?

 When the Jews were liberated from Egypt even the idolaters amongst them were redeemed. G‑d did not winnow out the unrighteous. Indeed, no matter how heinous the crime a Jew might have perpetrated in Egypt, he or she received the chance to be a part of the nascent Jewish people and receive the Torah at Mount Sinai.

 There was one notable exception to G‑d’s Grace. Those Jews who did not want to be liberated were left behind. According to the Midrash, they perished during the plague of darkness and were quickly buried before the light returned. G‑d did not want the Egyptians to know that a large number of Jews were also stricken by a plague.

 The question has been raised, why would G‑d liberate idolaters but not those who assimilated or had a slave mentality and were not emotionally ready to leave?

 The Rebbe (Likkutei Sichos, volume 11 p. 1-7) explains that the idea that Jews can never be excluded from the Jewish community and Jewish destiny, no matter how serious their transgressions, was introduced  at the Exodus from Egypt. Upon leaving Egypt, the Jewish nation acquired the status of G‑d’s “firstborn.” They were G‑d’s children no matter how serious their deviation from the desired norm. However, their status as G‑d’s firstborn child only attached to them if they wished to join the Divine “family” and be attached to G‑d, as a child is to his or her father. Those who chose to remain behind in Egypt were, in effect, rebelling against the essential relationship that would have allowed them to be liberated. They rejected their special role as G‑d’s firstborn.

 Thus, the Rebbe explains, the very rationale G‑d uses to override transgressions is the Jew’s firstborn status invested in every Jew. However, if those who did not want to leave Egypt refused their birthright how could they gain the status as firstborn? It is instructive here to consider the Jew who mistakenly expects his Yom Kippur atonement to negate his sin of eating on that very day. Yom Kippur can atone for any sin but only so long as the sin does not negate the very power of Yom Kippur. The Rebbe, citing the Ragatchover Gaon, applies the Talmudic expression: “A prosecutor cannot become the defender (in the same case, obviously).”  One cannot invoke the atoning power of Yom Kippur for the sin that is an affront to Yom Kippur. A child cannot reject his relationship with his parents while simultaneously demanding that they forgive his rebelliousness since he is their child.” Similarly, the Jew who spurned his status as G‑d’s firstborn could not see his sins mitigated by his status of G‑d’s firstborn.   

 Eisav’s Most Egregious Sin

 We can now understand why Eisav’s most serious transgression was rejection of his status as the firstborn. Although his other four sins, enumerated above, are considered among the most serious breaches of behavior and faith, G‑d could have found a way for Eisav to redeem himself.  Indeed, this would have happened if Eisav had embraced his status as the firstborn, and thus claimed his special relationship with G‑d. By exchanging this unique status for the ephemeral relief from hunger and weariness, Eisav lost his chance to redeem himself from his other severe violations.

 Thus, while the Talmud records the Oral Tradition’s version of Eisav’s criminal exploits on that day, the Written Torah cites only the sale of his birthright. In this way, the Torah gets right to the root of Eisav’s downfall and the ultimate degeneration of his descendants into tyranny and anti-Jewish behavior.  Indeed, the exile we are in—since the destruction of the Second Temple—is called the Exile of Rome, which our Sages trace back to Eisav. The root cause of all the misery and oppression of this Exile was Eisav’s lack of desire to be connected to his parents’ and grandparents’ legacy; he spurned what would have been his unbreakable link to G‑d.

Jacob saw into the future and realized that he must salvage the birthright, for in it lays the power of ultimate triumph over the forces of tyranny and exile.

 A Disturbing Question

 One can still raise a disturbing question about rejection of the birthright in our own day and age:

Just as Eisav disenfranchised himself from G‑d’s community and the liberation dynamic, so one might well wonder whether a Jew can do the same today. If that were the case, G‑d forbid, it would raise the awful possibility that millions of assimilated Jews, who do not identify with the claim of being G‑d’s firstborn, will not be redeemed by Moshiach.

 The answer has already been provided by the Rebbe in the talk cited earlier. The Jews of the Exodus era were left behind due to their reluctance to become part of the Jewish community of G‑d’s firstborn children. Today, the Rebbe asserts, no Jew will be left behind, because once we were liberated from Egypt and chosen as a people at Mount Sinai, we have for all times become G‑d’s firstborn. No Jew, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, can ever renounce his or her Jewishness.

 This, the Rebbe states, is essentially what we say to the “Rebellious Son” at the Seder when he objects to the Passover ritual: “If you had been there, you would not have been redeemed!” These stinging words actually manifest themselves as words of encouragement.   In this view, their emphasis should be seen as attaching to the word “there.” If the rebellious son, who wants nothing to do with liberation, had been in Egypt prior to the Exodus and missed the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, he would have shared the grim fate of those who refused to become part of the Jewish nation. However, now, the author of the Haggadah intimates, “you have no choice; you will be redeemed because you are a Jew!”

 The only choice we have before us now is to decide whether we experience the imminent Redemption without our willing participation and in spite of our lack of desire for it, G‑d forbid, or because of our fervent prayers and efforts to bring about the final Liberation.