The Torah describes Jacob as איש תם, a straightforward person (Genesis 25:27), and as the Torah personality who is the embodiment of truth (Micha 7:20). It is hard to imagine such a person participating in a plot of any kind, let alone one that involves theft. Yet, at his mother’s behest, Jacob dresses like his brother, wears goat skins on his arms to feel more hirsute, and refers to himself as Esau when asked who he is by the blind Isaac—all to deceive his father into giving him the blessing intended for Esau.
To be fair, Esau did trade his birthright to Jacob—for a mere bowl of lentil soup. (Genesis 25:29-34) There should have been no need for a ruse. When Isaac asked Esau to prepare him a meal as a prelude to the blessing, Esau should have told his father, “Thank you, but I traded my birthright to Jacob, so he should be the one to receive your blessing”. Instead, Esau conveniently forgets this earlier transaction, and Rebecca is forced to intervene.
This brings us to our first question: is it even possible to trade away a birthright? A birthright is a type of inheritance, spiritual and material, that belongs to the firstborn; it should be as impossible to trade it away as it is to cease being a firstborn child.
The Torah’s word for “firstborn” is בכור, bechor. It shares the same root as the word בכורים, bikkurim, “first fruits”. Bechor is translated as “firstborn”, but the actual Hebrew word only implies “first”. Rashi informs us that, although Esau was the first to emerge from the birth canal, Jacob was in fact conceived in the womb before him. (Ibid., verse 26). The implication is that Jacob, not Esau, was the actual bechor.
Now there are two candidates for the firstborn status, based on two different perspectives, ours and G-d’s. From our point of view, Esau was born first, and therefore he is the firstborn; from G-d’s point of view, Jacob was conceived first–which is something only G-d could have known–and therefore Jacob is the firstborn.
Ordinarily, Torah law is decided according to the principle אין לו לדיין אלא מה שעיניו רואות, “we judge only according to what our eyes see”. When it comes to deciding Torah law, we rely on our human perspective, because the law has been given to us by G-d to adjudicate. Since Esau was the first to emerge from the womb, an event that can be confirmed by human witnesses, Esau is the firstborn. The Midrash that informs us that Jacob was conceived in utero first should not be allowed to interfere with this fact.
Nevertheless, with the information that the Sages have given us, we now have to concede that there is another reality at play here, and the fact that Jacob was conceived first does matter. To explain this, we must understand that before the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, spiritual principles were dynamic. Firstborn status, for example, could move from the actual firstborn to another child who, for reasons of spiritual superiority, was more worthy of the bechor status. Hence, Jacob succeeds Esau as the bechor, and later blessed Joseph with “a portion above [his] brothers”, making Joseph—not Reuben—the bechor.
After the Giving of the Torah, the unwritten spiritual physics that governed the world became codified, hardened into a law which is still dynamic in terms of its application, but is immutable in its structure. Firstborn status is reserved for the firstborn child, without exception. When we insist on judging matters from our perspective and not G-d’s, we are taking a post-Sinai point of view. However, the events of this Torah portion took place before the Giving of the Torah.
If Jacob was the actual firstborn, then the story is not about how Esau’s firstborn rights were stolen, but about how the birthright was returned to its original owner.
Esau “spurned the birthright” (Genesis 25:34); he disregarded its spiritual value by trading it away to Jacob in exchange for a bowl of soup. Jacob, on the other hand, kept his eye upon it. Why? How does a person benefit from being a firstborn child, besides receiving a larger inheritance—something which is often forgone for the sake of peace in the family?
Being a bechor would ultimately mean the opportunity to perform the service in the Tabernacle and later, the Holy Temple. That role was initially reserved for the firstborn of the Jewish people, who would have functioned as the priestly Kohanim. (Numbers 3:11-13)
A quick review of the laws pertaining to Kohanim reveals that they must not come into contact with the dead, that they must keep themselves ritually pure, that they may not drink when they serve, and that they are responsible for a great many things in exchange for the privilege of serving in the Temple–the breech of which carries stringent penalties, such as death.
This is the deeper meaning of Esau’s response, “I am going to die–what profit is there in the birthright for me?” (Genesis 25:32, Rashi, ibid.). Esau saw this as too much of a high-risk investment, and he decided that it was not worth it. Why make himself vulnerable to such Divine Exactitude? Jacob, on the other hand, understood that, even though the stakes were higher, the return on investment–namely, the opportunity to serve G-d–was worth it. (Rashi, ibid., verses 31-34) Jacob belonged, as it were, to this destiny, and therefore he was its owner. Eventually, this would be articulated by G-d Himself, when He says to Pharaoh, “Israel [Jacob’s other name] is my firstborn”. (Numbers 4:22)
If you pay close attention, you will see that this theme that repeats itself throughout Genesis. G-d’s covenant with the world in general, and humanity in particular, is passed down from generation to generation. In every generation, someone is appointed to be the representative of the covenant, be it a single individual, a family, or a nation. The covenant was first given to Adam, and would have been passed on to Abel, but he was killed by Cain, and generations would pass until the birth of Noah, who would then carry the torch.
Not only is a “torch-carrier” appointed, but there is always some process of separation, a constant intervention needed to secure the chain of transmission. Therefore, Noah and his family (and the animal kingdom) are separated from all other creatures on Earth. Then, Abraham is removed from the idolatrous environment of his father’s world.
Although Abraham has two sons, the covenant is only passed down through Isaac. Likewise, of Isaac’s two children, Jacob is the one to carry the covenant forth. Note that within the narratives of the families of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, it is the wives, specifically Sarah and Rebecca, who guarantee that the covenant gets passed down to the right person.
The children of Jacob, a branch of the human family, become the next in line. Their descent into Egypt is a process of gestation, as it were, culminating in the birth of the Jewish People, who are ultimately made distinct from the rest of the world by the specific mission they are given at Mount Sinai. At first glance, this seems to make the concept of the covenant more and more exclusive, leaving the rest of humanity behind. How can this be G-d’s plan for the perfection of His Creation—all of His Creation?
However, if we look deeper, we see that G-d’s guiding Providence ensured that all humanity would be able to achieve its purpose—specifically through the exclusive giving of the Torah to the Children of Israel. For within this revelation to the Jewish nation was a re-giving of the Seven Mitzvot to the Bnei Noach, which is not only a covenant, but the birthright of humanity. This most ancient of codes, given by G-d through Adam and Noah to the rest of humanity, had been pushed virtually out of consciousness in the generations following the Flood. But through the Torah, a new opportunity presented itself to all mankind to reconnect with G-d. Hence, Maimonides states that Gentiles merit life in the World to Come,
“…when they accept [the Seven Mitzvot] upon themselves, to do them because they have been commanded by the Holy One, Blessed is He, through His Torah, and have been informed by Moses our teacher that this is how the B’nei Noach were commanded.”
(Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 8:11)
Once the Torah was given to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, Bnei Noach, who were originally obligated to keep the Seven Mitzvot because of G-d’s covenant with Adam and Noah, were now obligated through the Torah itself. So, even though the Giving of the Torah was a revelation of G-d’s Will experienced by the Jews specifically, it was also a revelation of the particular aspect of G-d’s Will that is relevant to all humanity. By way of analogy, think of the time a friend or family member brought you a gift they bought for you while on vacation. The gift was for you, but in order to reach you, it had to be transported in your friend’s suitcase.
May we be blessed to live our lives in accordance with G-d’s Covenant, fulfilling the unique missions that have been given to each and every one of us.
By Rabbi Tani Burton
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