Reevaluating Esau

[I know this is late. I meant to get it posted in time for the relevant Torah reading this year (Parashat Toldot). But it is one of my best pieces, so I am posting it now — better late than never]

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

Why would Esau abandon his birthright? He arrives home after a day’s hunt, smells his brother’s cooking, and trades the birthright away for dinner. Why indeed would he do that?

Details matter here. The first thing Esau announces upon entering the tent is, “I am weary.” Jacob makes him a proposition, “Sell (michrah) your birthright.” Esau despairs: “I am about to die. What good is my birthright to me?” And with that, the deed is done.

Esau deserves more sympathy than he gets, because we are conditioned to treat him as the “heavy.” But God is compassionate, the Rabbis say, so we should be too. Look again at Esau, then.

Are we to believe that Esau’s weariness is pure physical exhaustion? Could this mighty man of strength be so weak that he cannot pour himself some stew? That he cannot think straight enough to keep his birthright intact? Hardly. Take him at his word! “I am weary… about to die.” It doesn’t take much to diagnose Esau as suffering from a malady that attacks millions of us still: Depression.

The Rabbis emphasize the word used by Jacob, an unusual version of the imperative, michrah, “Sell!” It can also be read, machrah, not the imperative, but the past tense, meaning, “She (or it) sold” — as if rather than asking for the birthright, Jacob was observing that something or other had already sold it. Nachmanides indicates what that “something” was: it is Esau’s weariness, ayefut in Hebrew, a feminine abstract noun, and the real subject of the sentence.

On this reading, Esau arrives home at dark, his depression creeping in with the setting sun. “I am weary,” he announces, “ready to die. What good is anything to me?”

“Your weariness has sold the birthright,” Jacob observes.

And the Torah sums it up: “Esau treated even his birthright with contempt,” not because he is too tired to think clearly, but because his very soul is so weary of the world, that he is ready to die.

Thousands of readers will now recognize Esau in themselves or in those they love. Sufferers of depression present themselves as strong and filled with promise, while inside, they are weary beyond belief. Their own birthright — fresh air, sunshine, life itself — seems meaningless. People ask them to snap out of it — as if they could. But they cannot. They can barely get out of bed in
the morning. Like Esau, they are oh so weary — ready to die.

How, we may wonder, does Esau fare in the end? Years later, returning from servitude to Laban, Jacob encounters his brother who has done quite well for himself. He is wealthy, thriving, a man with family, land, and servants. But Jacob overlooks the obvious to peer into Esau’s soul. Having recognized, once, how “Esau’s weariness has sold his birthright” Jacob now judges anew. “Looking into your face,” he says, “is like looking into the face of God” (Gen. 33:10).

Jacob recognizes Esau’s depression as a thing of the past: his brother’s face, once weary, now shines with divine radiance. With his new-found peace of mind, Esau can even forgive Jacob for taking advantage of him when they were children. He kisses Jacob, assures him he is content with life, and calmly takes his leave.

Esau is a case study in hope. If Esau can be transformed into a mirror of the divine, then so can we. But first we must decide that daily weariness is neither normal nor necessary. Happiness depends on the inner life of the soul, and the soul can find the most surprising cures, even when we least expect them.

In our day, God stores up miracles in medical discoveries. If you are weary unto death, find a doctor. Decide that you have had enough of sadness. It is never too late to learn to shine like God.


3 responses to “Reevaluating Esau

  1. Thank you, Rabbi. Happy Thanksgiving.

  2. Larry, This is terrific, but aren’t you, in the end, also telling depressed people to “snap out of it”? Or to see a doctor (who’ll give you a pill)? One way to help a depressed person out of their depression is to encourage them to consider the consequences of not being depressed (e.g. having to be more responsible) and thus to “go slow”. Another is to frame the depression as “grieving” and thus requiring further time—paradoxically freeing the person to come out of their depression. I have found this book enormously helpful, with regard to this and other issues requiring the intervention of a professional: Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution (9780393011043): Paul Watzlawick, John H. Weakland, Richard Fisch, Milton H. Erickson: Books


    – – – – – – – – Dr. Jonathan H. Gerard 201 Parsons St. Easton, PA 18042-1718

    610 248-1588


  3. I have never understood why Esau is portrayed as the heavy in this story. Unlike Jacob, he behaves honestly throughout.

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