July 22, 2024
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July 22, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Legend has it that 400 years ago, local native Americans relinquished ownership over the Island of “Manhattes” for the modern equivalent of about $1,000. In the public imagination, the trade of Manhattan for trinkets undoubtedly ranks as the worst deal in modern history. Even if this legend is true, this reckless exchange isn’t as laughable as Eisav’s deal 3,700 years ago. To barter your status as the “chosen first-born child” for a plate of cooked lentils seems silly and absurd. Eisav spends his entire lifetime recovering from this mistake, pursuing Yaakov and contriving to reverse this tragic decision. What caused this temporary lunacy? What was Eisav thinking?

Part of Eisav’s mistake was precisely because he wasn’t thinking! Yaakov is portrayed as a tent-dweller living a contemplative and introspective lifestyle. Our Chazal elaborate that Yaakov was also a diligent student in the “tents of study.” By contrast, Eisav, the “man of the field” who excelled at hunting, was just too busy. He was a man of action and of energy but not necessarily wisdom, discretion or long-term vision. Eisav bursts into the room hungry and hurried, exhausted from his hunting expeditions. He specifically mentions how tired he is as he commands Yaakov for some “red food.” Eisav doesn’t even have the time to identify the food he craves—it’s just a color rush of red as he tries to hustle his “power lunch.” In fact, he is even too busy to enjoy his meal. He barks at Yaakov to pour some of the red fuel down his throat—employing the verb hal’iteni, which is typically reserved for feeding animals. This man of action is too hurried and too harried for an enjoyable “meal”; he just wants to refuel and return to his hunting. He has converted eating into a visit to the petrol station. If he hasn’t the time or calm to enjoy his food, Eisav certainly doesn’t have the inner quiet to consider the long-term prospects of his current station as first born.

Our world has become as busy and as frenetic as Eisav’s. Over the past generation, the pace of our lives has accelerated and the pressure has intensified. The speed of the internet has shaped a world of quick and intense interactions. We prefer “communication platforms” that allow for quick interactions such as WhatsApp. We are always responding quickly—to people, to events—without allowing ourselves proper time for inflection or contemplation. Even in our human “non-digital” interactions we are forced to quickly “read” the other rather than acquainting ourselves with that person and appreciating their complexity. It is no wonder that easy labels or stereotypes have become so popular: they are cheap excuses for real evaluation and real appreciation of the complexity of each individual. Why invest in actually understanding people we can quickly assign simplistic labels? In the modern world we are far more productive and efficient but far less successful in deep and true relationships. Ultimately, we also pay the heavy price of Eisav: sacrificing long-term prospects for quick hits and immediate needs. Speed has come at the cost of depth, efficiency at the cost of vision. Calculating the importance of the “long term” demands time and vision—commodities that are rare in our hectic world of Eisav’s “field.”

However, Eisav’s folly stems from an additional lapse of judgment. He responds to Yaakov’s proposal by reasoning, “I will die and therefore this title is meaningless.” At a literal level, this dismissal reflects an unhealthy attitude toward human mortality. Indeed, man is mortal and will pass from this earth, but during his time on this planet he can dramatically improve this world for the benefit of others who will walk in his wake. Rashi, however, imputes a very different basis for Eisav’s worries. Recognizing that a first born would officiate as a priest, Eisav inquired as to the terms of this position. Discovering the harsh punishments for priestly malfunction, he balked; he was literally worried that his office as first born/priest would kill him. The priestly experience in the Mikdash is highly regulated and the penalties for missteps are often strict. Apprehensive about this danger, Eisav forfeited his title and his position. Religious duty was too frightening!

Even ignoring Eisav’s humiliating cowardice, there is a grievous error in his reasoning. Though there may be fearsome punishments associated with religion, religion isn’t defined as a system of punishments and penalties. It is a grand and glorious opportunity to encounter the Other—one that enriches and elevates the human experience. Punishments merely reflect the grandeur of the experience. This encounter with God is so formidable and so surpassing that it is highly regulated and even minor missteps are punishable. A more relaxed environment would compromise the gravitas of the experience! However, Eisav was unable to identify the power and the glory of religion and was instead obsessed and fixated upon the fear of punishment and of reprisal.

When religion is presented as intimidating and fear-inducing it is often abandoned. The emotion of fear crushes human imagination, and if religion is pitched upon fear it is more difficult for it to settle into human identity. Furthermore, modern man having braved the great challenges of the 20th century views himself as courageous and intrepid. Religious experience framed by fear will not powerfully resonate within modern consciousness. Two hundred years ago, Rav Yisrael Salanter, the pioneer of the mussar movement, based religion upon yiras ha’onesh—fear of punishment. Though it was effective in that cultural context, today it is sometimes less successful and, for some, can become counter-productive. In place of “religion of fear” it is crucial to highlight “religion of grandeur” and of empowerment. All this being stated, we shouldn’t ignore the punishment and consequences. In our desire to avoid stressing a fear-based religion we cannot emulsify Judaism into a religion without costs. The concept of punishment shouldn’t only induce fear but should underscore the gravitas of a life lived in the presence of God, the magnitude of responsibility and consequently the great tragedy of failure. Religion is a high-stakes encounter with God, and we must be visionary enough and courageous enough to embrace the power as well as the punishments.


Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion, located in Gush Etzion, where he resides.

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