Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner
Director, Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership
In Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, he offers a theological argument to explain why the civil war was still exacting so heavy a price on the North as well as the South. Though he deeply held the conviction that the abolition of slavery was morally imperative, Lincoln did not take for granted that the moral turpitude of the South could be taken as a vindication of the North. Morality was not to be seen as a zero sum game of moral victors and moral villains. After all, the cotton mills and industry of the North had also gained wealth through the lash of the whip upon the black slaves of the South.
Similarly, for various exegetes, the Esau/Jacob barter of broth for birthright in Bereishit 25, concludes with a clear disqualification of Esau from the legacy of Abraham, as Esau is willing to spurn the birthright for the sake of fleeting gratification. Yet, Jacob’s willingness to exploit his famished brother’s impulsivity also calls into question Jacob’s sense of fairness and morality.
What is it that impels Jacob toward this unfair bargain and the exploitation of Esau’s state of “ayef” -being famished and depleted from the hunt?
Moreover, can the exploitation of his brother’s vulnerability, of this ruddy hunter’s need for immediate gratification, really provide Jacob with a true sense of entitlement or with a confirmation of his father’s preference? And if not, is there not something movingly pathetic about the attempt of the unloved son to win his father’s preference through a dubious purchase?
The 19th century commentary Ohr Hachaim (Rabbi Chaim Ibn Attar) addresses this issue as he astutely interprets the juxtaposition of verse 28 (Isaac’s love of the ruddy Esau on account of food) with verse 29 (Jacob cooking a meal of red, thick stew):
“Perhaps as he saw that Esau’s feeding of Isaac was effective he also pursued the path of cooking a meal in order to bring closer his father’s heart, as had Esau.”
The suggestion of Ohr Hachaim is that the text has juxtaposed the absence of Isaac’s love for Jacob (and the love for Esau on account of food) with Jacob’s cooking a stew, in order to subtly indicate Jacob’s motivation. For Ohr Hachaim then, the background of the “lentil soup scene” is Jacob’s desire for his father’s love, even before the arrival of the famished Esau. It seems that the closest to providing red meat (venison) for Isaac that the smooth-skinned dweller of tents can attain and provide is to prepare a thick, vegetarian soup described by Esau as that “red, red stuff.” Thus, Jacob steals Esau’s modus operandi of “feeding father” in order to be preferred.
Notably, an extension of this reading suggests a powerful connection to the scene two chapters later in Bereishit where Jacob will again become Esau (this time quite literally by masquerading as his brother and saying “I am Esau”). The latter scene also contains the motif of exploitation of another’s weakness – this time- Isaac’s blindness. The two episodes are connected by the anguished cry of Esau, “Is not he rightly called Jacob (usurper), for he has usurped me twice; he has taken my birthright and now he has taken my blessing!”
In short, one may say that the first scene both parallels and foreshadows the second, as they both consist of Jacob being Esau in order to procure their father’s love or preference.
There is additional indication of the connection between the barter of birthright for broth and the deceitful taking of Esau’s blessing as well as an indication that the narration views both as exploitation for which a price must later be paid. In both stories there is an unusual word or phrase used to link this story to the future exploitation of the seed of Jacob at the hands of the children of Esau.
In Gen. 36:10–12 we are told that the grandson of Esau is Amalek, later to become a nation infamous in its persecution and exploitation of the Israelites. Only thrice does the term “ayef” (famished) appear in the five books of Moses—twice describing Esau in the lentil soup scene and again in describing the weariness of Israelites in the desert when they are attacked by Amalekites. Furthermore, with regard to the anguish of Esau in the aftermath of Jacob’s deceit with the blessings, the narration relates (Gen. 27:34) that Esau “cried out a very great and bitter cry.” The only other place in the Hebrew Bible where this phrase appears is in the book of Esther (4:1) where Mordekhai the Jew “cries out a great and bitter cry” because of the plot against his people on the part of Haman the Agagite (Amalekite).It would seem that the intertextual references highlight a relationship of mida k’neged mida – poetic justice, in which the offspring of Esau exploit the “ayef” offspring of Jacob in a Biblical come-uppance for the original exploitation of Esau the “ayef” at the hands of Jacob.
To add a final note to this complex web of Biblical karma, the word ayef appears only a few other times in all of the Bible. One of those times is in Job 22: 7, where Job’s critic Elifaz the Yemenite tells Job he must have sinned grievously to have deserved the misfortunes that have befallen him. The sins he enumerates sound very similar to those of Jacob with Esau – most particularly the words, “you provided no drink to the ayef; rather you have withheld bread from the hungry”. לא מים עיף תשקה ומרעב תמנע לחם
It should be recalled that Jacob had withheld bread as well as lentil stew in the original scene in Bereishit 25. Moreover, the character who utters this critique of Job as a Jacob-like sinner is named Elifaz – the same name as the son of Esau in Bereishit 36 who fathers Amalek! Surely it is no coincidence that the verb for withholding sustenance from the famished (ayef) here in Job 22 is the word “Timna” – a word that appears as well in Bereishit 36 as the proper name of Elifaz’s wife, the mother of Amalek!
It would appear that an exegetical detective following the trail of the word ayef through the Bible, will find links in a chain of crime and intergenerational payment for the suffering of others. Moreover, he will discover that Israel’s arch enemy has his roots in our own history of moral lapse. While clearly not equating heroes and villains, and not claiming moral equivalence between a moral lapse and a murderous genocidal tradition, the Bible nonetheless seems to echo Lincoln’s sage warning that morality is no one-dimensional zero sum game. As simply put by the poet Auden, “those to whom evil is done, do evil in return”. And when they do, the laws of proportionality are seldom in effect.