This week’s Torah portion is Toldot, Genesis 25:19 – 28:9.
The attitude and demeanor that we exude in a particular situation is often more carefully scrutinized than whether we made the right decision in that situation. Often times, failure can be counterbalanced by an attitude or approach that demonstrates careful consideration about the mistake. Parshat Toldot teaches us a corollary of this lesson through the experience of Esau.
The beginning of the parsha describes the birth of Jacob and Esau. Echoing other complex family dynamics in the Torah, the twins are prophesied to become rivals, “One people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23).
From the outset, it is clear that their relationship will be marked by moments of challenge and competition. It is no surprise then that when they grow up and Esau returns from a hunt famished and exhausted, Jacob capitalizes upon the opportunity to gain the upper hand. Without hesitation Esau agrees to sell his birthright to Jacob in exchange for a pot of stew.
This seemingly rash decision is not what the Torah deems so reprehensible about Esau’s behavior. Genesis 25:34 states, “Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew. He ate, drank, got up and left, and thus Esau spurned the birthright.”
The verse contains five verbs in succession, quite uncharacteristic of most verses in the Torah. This syntactic structure emphasizes to readers and listeners alike that all of this happened rapidly and without hesitation — that Esau grabbed the stew, bolted down the meal, and without saying a single word to his brother, stood up and stormed out of the tent.
The Torah teaches us that it was not the sale of the birthright that was so problematic, but the way in which Esau behaved that demonstrated his lack of respect for the institution of the birthright, and his inability to recognize that the short-term relief of lentil stew paled in comparison to the sacred value of the birthright.
Esau’s sin was that he did not take time to consider the magnitude of his choice. Esau’s spurning of the birthright was more about his attitude toward the decision than it was about the decision itself.
We all make mistakes. We sometimes choose to go right when we should have turned left. We confuse what appears to be the best choice with what actually offers the best possible outcome. Making mistakes is part of being human. But it is the way we approach our decisions and the consideration that we bring to complex scenarios that have the potential to elevate our experiences to the realm of the holy.
We are not obligated to make the right choice all the time. And we must give each other the permission to make mistakes. But we are obligated to approach each of life’s decisions thoughtfully, acknowledging the impact that our choices have on ourselves and those around us. If we consider our choices with a sense of humility, then we will have upheld one of the Torah’s great lessons, and in so doing we will infuse life’s precious moments with a sense of the holy.
Rabbi Mitchell Berkowitz is assistant rabbi at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville.