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Divrei Torah Parshas Toldos

Parashas Toldos 5773: What is the Significance of Esav’s Rejection of his Birthright?

The Gemarah [1] relates that on the day of our forefather Avraham’s passing, Esav the wicked one committed five sins. He had inappropriate relations with a betrothed maiden, he murdered King Nimrod, he denied the fundamental belief of the existence of G-d, he denied the principle of the resurrection of the dead, and he demeaned the birthright of the firstborn. The Gemarah finds scriptural sources for four of Esav’s sins through the means of drashos (exegesis), however, the sin of belittling the right of the firstborn is stated clearly by the pasuk [2] ויבז עשו את הבכרה – and Esav denigrated the birthright.
What is the significance of the right of the firstborn? Even prior to the construction of the Mishkan, the tabernacle, divine service was already being performed. These rituals included sacrificial offerings [3] and giving the priestly benediction [4]. Initially these privileges belonged to the firstborns until the sin of the Golden Calf when subsequently they were reassigned to the Kohanim and Levi’im.
It seems a bit confounding that of all the five sins the only one the Torah makes a clear reference to is Esav’s defamation of the right of the bechor (firstborn). Seemingly this sin is on a far lesser stature than the other four: inappropriate relations with a married woman, homicide, and rejection of the belief of Hashem are all of the seven Noahide laws [5]. The denial of the principle of the restoration of the deceased, although not required by Noahide law, is one of the thirteen principles of Jewish faith, Therefore it is understandable that it was considered a sin for Esav. However, the sin of mocking the privilege of the firstborn is no sin at all; it is merely a viewpoint. If so, even if homiletically it is considered a sin, it still does not come even close to the other sins. Why then does the Torah only give citation to this sin?
Reb Moshe Feinstein [6] explains this sin of Esav’s with the words of the Rambam [7]. “Whoever accepts on himself the fulfillment of the seven Noahide laws and is careful in its adherence is considered to be from the righteous among the gentiles. However, this is only if he accepts and fulfils them in view of the fact that it is mandated by Hashem as stated in the Torah that was given to us by our teacher and master Moshe and that these distinct laws were previously given to Noach and his descendants. From the words of the Rambam we see clearly that a Noahide must believe in the divinity of the Torah. As such if he were to deprecate the Torah he is considered liable.” We know from Chazal (our Rabbis) [8] that our forefathers fulfilled the Torah even prior to its being given on Sinai, per se Esav most definitely knew of this and is considered accountable for degrading the priestly service. Although this explanation does actually shed light on why this precise sin was considered an indiscretion, it still has not focused on the gravity of this particular wrongdoing over the other four.
The Toldos Yaakov Yoseph [9] says that Torah law states that the firstborn receives a double inheritance; however, this is only after the death of the ‘moreish’ (one who dies intestate). This he explains is the meaning of the verse “he got up and went out and Esav denigrated the birthright”. He did not pay heed to what will come about – his twofold share due him by birthright and he only lived for the moment. Based on this I would like to elaborate with a few explanations on these verses. What is the significant underlying implication of Esav’s show of contempt towards the right of the firstborn?
Reb Boruch of Mezhibozh [10] explains the pasuk [11] ואתה עיף ויגע ולא ירא אלקים – you were faint and weary, and did not fear G-d. That if a person feels fatigued after his performance of a mitzvah it is indicative of his lack of conviction in his service of Hashem. If he would be fully earnest he would not become physically drained for he would see the true significance of his actions. The pasuk says ויבא עשו מן השדה והוא עיף – and Esav came from the field and he was worn out. Esav was returning from slaying King Nimrod who was infamous for throwing Avraham into the burning furnace, as well as for numerous other heinous acts. Thus killing him could have been perceived as a mitzvah. Indeed there are some commentaries [12] that explain that Yitzchack’s great love toward Esav [13] was in part as a result to his doing away with the sinful Nimrod. However, Yaakov realized from Esav’s fatigue that he had not killed Nimrod for the sake of a mitzvah rather that he was a simple murderer. He therefore consequently understood that it was not befitting for Esav who was a killer to render sacrificial services [14] as he was not in touch with spirituality. Essentially Yaakov understood from his attitude that serving Hashem was not considered a very great honor in Esav’s eyes.
The Pasuk further says [15] ויאמר עשו הנה אנכי הולך למות ולמה זה לי בכרה – and Esav said “behold I am going to die, and what benefit shall the birthright be to me”. Our Rabbis [16] teach usאין התורה מתקיימת אלא במי שממית עצמו עליה – the Torah is only everlasting by one who exerts himself to the utmost in his service of Hashem, to the extent that he collapses from total exhaustion. This is then what Esav was implying “behold I am going to die” – I am required to exert myself to the point of expiration in order to serve Hashem. Therefore, “what benefit shall the birthright be to me” – and I, Esav am not interested in giving up all the worldly pleasures in return for my firstborn privilege that is, to serve Hashem as a Kohen/priest, and to receive reward later (which is indicated by the fact the bechor/firstborn gets a double inheritance later on as explained by the Toldos Yaakov Yoseph).
Now we can fully understand why out of all the five sins Esav committed on that fateful day the Torah only clearly refers to Esav’s degradation of the right of the Bechora/firstborn. It ultimately is this sin that was the core of all of Esav’s depravities. If Esav would have honored the bechora and what it symbolized (reverence toward service of Hashem) he would then have had a fighting chance not to fall prey to the evil inclination. Esav’s lack of spiritual grounding would ultimately allow him to commit the other most grievous sins. It is therefore understandable why the Torah makes overt mention only of Esav’s denigration of the ‘bechora’. This offense, despite its appearance of being somewhat inconsequential, was actually more serious than the others, for it shows Esav’s total disregard for spirituality, which in turn was the cause of his infamous decline.

[1] Tractate Baba Basra 16B

[2] Bereishes 25:34

[3] See Tractate Zevachim 112B, as well as the Bereishis Rabbah 63:14.

[4] See Rashi Parshas Vayechi 49:3 where Rashi quotes the Medrash (Bereishes Rabbah 99:6) that the right of the firstborn was to give priestly blessings.

[5] The seven laws which are binding to all gentiles are the requirement to have a body of civil law, the prohibitions against idolatry, immorality, murder, sacrilege, thieving, and eating the limbs off of live animals.

[6] Rabbi Moshe Feinstein 1895-1986, in his sefer on Baba Basra Dibros Moshe He’ara 79.

[7] Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (“Maimonides”) 1135- 1204. In his book Yad Hachazaka the laws of Milachim 8:11

[8] See Tractate Yuma 28B

[9] Rabbi Yaakov Yosef HaKohain of Polnoye who passed away in 1784. He was one of the earliest and closest rabbinical disciples of the Baal Shem Tov. He was the first to author a book of Chassidic doctrine, called Toldos Yaakov Yoseph.

[10] 1753-1812, he was a grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of the Chasidic movement.

[11] Devarim/Deuteronomy 25:18

[12] Reb Chaim Vital (1543-1620) in his sefer Eitz Hada’as Tov.

[13] See verse 25:28

[14] The Zohar 3:214A actually rules that a Kohen who has committed murder is forever prohibited from performing the service in the Temple. The Gemarah in Tractate Brachos 32B is seemingly in agreement. The Tosfos Yom Tov in Bechoros 7:7 also rules so.

[15] 25:32

[16] See Tractate Brachos 63B




Parshas Toldos 5775: What Role Does Yichus Play in Tefilah?

This week’s Parsha begins with our Patriarch Yitzchock and Matriarch Rivkah davening to Hashem to be blessed with children. The pasuk [1] states, “vayei’aser lo Hashem – And Hashem hearkened to him (Yitzchock).” Rashi references the Gemarah [2] that explains why Hashem answered Yitzchock’s tefilah (prayer) rather than Rivkah’s. “You cannot compare the prayers of a Tzadik (a righteous person) who is also the son of a Tzadik to the prayers of a Tzadik who is the child of a Rasha (evil person).” Yitzchock was a Tzadik and the son of the Patriarch Avraham the Tzadik. Rivkah was a great Tzadaikes, but she was the daughter of Besuel the Rasha.

Many commentaries find this gemarah challenging. It would seem that a person who rose to great spiritual heights in spite of his negative and evil environment to become a truly righteous person should be on a more lofty level than a person who was raised in an environment conducive of righteousness. Indeed the Gemarah [3] already states such, “B’Makom she’baalei teshuvah omdim ein tzaddikim gimurim yacholim laamod – the baal teshuvah (penitent) ascends to a spiritual perch which eludes even the righteous person. In other words, one who has prevailed over his inglorious past has achieved more and will be elevated beyond the status of he who has always been righteous. Why than were Yitzchock’s prayers more effective than Rivkah’s prayers?

Rebbe Naftali Tzvi of Ropshitz [4] would often speak about the great yichus (family heritage) he had from both the paternal and maternal sides of his family.

He once remarked about the benefits of his yichus: Take a person who’s a real tzadik, a great scholar and serves Hashem in every way. He gets up at midnight and cries over the destruction of the Temple for hours, then he immerses himself in a freezing cold mikvah and spends the rest of the night delving into the hidden and revealed parts of Torah. Come daybreak, he goes to shul (synagogue) and davens for hours. After davening he returns to the study of Torah. It is close to midday before he can nourish himself with a meager breakfast. However, he partakes of that meal with a small sense of entitlement. After all his exertions, he thinks, does he not deserve that minimal diversion?

On the other hand, the pedigreed Tzadik, the virtuous man who is descended from totally righteous people after practicing the same devotions described here, would nonetheless approach his scant repast with an attitude of utter humility. Since his ancestors were great tzadikim, he gives a heavy sigh and asks of himself, “Am I really serving Hashem with all my ability? I have still not reached the lofty spiritual levels of my ancestors.”

That, says the Ropshitzer is the value of yichus.

(On a side note this can be the explanation of an oft quoted chazal [5] “One should constantly demand perfection of oneself by asking, ‘When will my deeds reach the level of the deeds of my Forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchock, and Yaakov?’ ” That it is our spiritual legacy as Jews, children of these great and holy men; to always be able to see ourselves as people of yichus, descended from spiritual giants, and humbled by their great accomplishments.)

Dovid HaMelech (King David) writes “Lev Nishbar vinidka elokim lo sivze – Hashem will not scorn a broken and humbled heart” [6]. The Gemarah [7] teaches us, ” it is written, ‘ u’levodo be’chol levavchem’ “and to serve Him with all your heart” ‘. What sort of Avodah – service of Hashem is there with the heart?,” queries the Gemarah  – “Tefillah (prayer)”, the Gemarah concludes. We can now read this pasuk, “lev (heart) nishbar vinidka alokim lo sivze,” the prayer of the broken hearted is never scorned by Hashem.

The seforim write that in order for someone to truly exert himself in davening he must first come to the realization that he is truly unworthy before Hashem. When one comes to such a powerful comprehension and cries out to Hashem, placing his heart in His Hands, he eliminates all of the prosecuting angels that might even threaten the continuity of his existence.

This realization of praying a Tefilah leoni – a poor man’s prayer, that is, realizing that Hashem owes him nothing and to beseech Him in utter humility is something that Tzadik the son of a Tzadik can more readily attain then a tzadik who is the son of a Rasha. As the Ropshitzer Rebbe said the son of a tzadik is never satisfied by the level of his service to Hashem, because he has not attained the spiritual hights of his ancestors.

This week’s Parsha, and the statement that Hashem responded to Yitzchock’s tefilah more favorably than to Rivkah’s, can be understood similarly. It is almost impossible that Rivkah with all of her greatness could have been able to present her plea to Hashem with the same level of humility as was Yitzchock, for surely she was aware of her superiority to her father Besuel. How could she avoid some feeling of entitlement of Hashem’s kindness in light of how far she risen above her ignoble origins? Yitzchock, on the other hand, feeling dwarfed by his father Avrohom’s accomplishments, was able to approach Hashem with total modesty, relying not on his own merits, but instead imploring of Hashem’s infinite mercy. Yitzchock’s prayers were pure, free of any taint of smugness to a greater degree than Rivkah’s prayers could have been and therefore Hashem responded to his prayers more readily than to hers.


[1] Bereishis 25:21

[2] Tractate Yevamos 64A

[3] Tractate Berachos 34B

[4] Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Horowitz of Ropshitz, 1760–1827

[5] Tanna D’vei Eliyahu, Chapter 25

[6] Tehillim 51:19

[7] Tractate Taanis 2A