Esau and the World to Come

Part I. Esav’s World: Eisav lost his opportunity for greatness because he forgot what this world is for.

HaRav Avigdor Miller zts"l

Judaism Council of Torah Sages
Council of Torah Sages
INN:Toras Avigdor

Signs of a Leader

When this week’s parsha describes for us the birth of Eisav (Esau) we read the following words: וַיֵּצֵא הָרִאשׁוֹן אַדְמוֹנִי – The first one came out and he was ruddy (Toldos 25:25), and we note right away that there are two things the Torah is telling us here. First of all, he was born first, rishon, the bechor, which on its own merit entitled Eisav to a certain natural position of leadership – that’s how it always was, the firstborn was privileged to preside over the family service; he was the boss in the family.

But not only was he chronologically the leader, he looked the part too: וַיֵּצֵא הָרִאשׁוֹן אַדְמוֹנִי means that Eisav was born red. Now, it doesn’t mean that he had red hair, but he was red blooded in his cheeks – the blood coursing through his veins was apparent through his skin. Hakodosh Boruch Hu favored him with a strong and robust complexion - and that was looked at by everyone as a demonstration that from Heaven, min haShamayim, he was the one more suited for leadership of the family. He had the natural look of a leader – strong and energetic.

And if you would ask the Edomites, they would tell you that this verse, possuk, is the reason they acquired their national name. They forever called themselves Edom in order to emphasize that their ancestor was born with all the physical signs of leadership and that they, the ones descended from the "admoni," the ruddy one, were the ones who really should have been the chosen nation.

They lived nearby — Edom was right next to Eretz Yisroel – and they never forgot that Yaakov (Jacob), the younger brother, used wiles and trickery to steal the birthright, bechora, from its rightful owner, their ancestor Eisav. He was the red-blooded one, who was born to rule; and therefore the name Edom was intended as a loud and permanent protest to the world: “Our grandfather was born to be the leader of that family – and it was stolen from us by the little trickster, his younger brother.”

A Different Perspective

But along comes the Torah and tells us a very different reason for that name: וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו אֶל יַעֲקֹב הַלְעִיטֵנִי נָא מִן הָאָדֹם הָאָדֹם הַזֶּה כִּי עָיֵף אָנֹכִי – And Eisav said to Yaakov, “Feed me please from this red red [stuff] because I’m exhausted,” עַל כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמוֹ אֱדוֹם – that’s why his name was called Edom.

Now, you have to know that whenever it says עַל כֵּן, that's why, it comes l’afukei, to exclude what you might otherwise think. The Torah is telling us, “Don’t listen to what the Edomites want you to believe, that Eisav was called Edom because of his strength and ruddiness. No, al kein kara sh’mo Edom – this is the real reason he was called Edom – it’s because of that episode when he sold away his birthright for a bowl of adom adom, red-red, lentils.”

How did that story come about? The Torah introduces it like this: וַיָּבֹא עֵשָׂו מִן הַשָּׂדֶה וְהוּא עָיֵף – Eisav came from the field and he was weary. Now, the words וְהוּא עָיֵף — And he was weary, are not written merely for description. Our sages tell us (Bava Basra 16b) that he wasn’t merely weary from hunting in the field. They tell us he was mentally and morally weary – he was discouraged because of a shock that he had just experienced.

The Shock of Death

That day, the Sages tell us, was the tragic day when Avraham Avinu passed away. And for Eisav – he was about fifteen years old – the demise of his grandfather was a big blow. It was such a shock for Eisav that the Sages tell us (ibid.) that on that day עֵשָׂו כָּפַר בִּתְחִיַּת הַמֵּתִים – Eisav rebelled against the belief in the World To Come.

Now, don’t make any mistake about it, Eisav believed in Olam Habo. No question about that! Whatever you think about Eisav, you have to know, you are probably thinking incorrectly. Eisav was a believer, a ma’amin; he was a son of two great parents, and in that great family Olam Habo was the breath in their nostrils –they lived only because of Olam Habo. And Eisav didn’t say anything that would contradict that; he didn’t come out openly and say any foolish statement against the principle of his forefathers,  against the principles for which they lived. It was just as impossible for Eisav to say that he disbelieved in the World To Come as to say he disbelieved in himself.

So what happened on that day? When Eisav heard the terrible news that Avraham had passed away he lost a certain amount of confidence in Olam Habo; he lost his footing and fell down from the great level, the madreigah, of his family, because to the human eye, death seems to be a testimony against hash’aras hanefesh, the eternity of the soul.

Seeing is Disbelieving

You know, when a person is walking around; he’s functioning; he’s eating three meals a day and he has money in his pocket, it’s easy to talk about the World to Come. Sure, why not! In addition to this world, he wants the Next World too, why not? So he’ll believe in it. But when he sees a dead body, it suddenly becomes very difficult to believe in the Afterlife.

That’s how it is – death deceives the mind to think that this is the sof kol adam, that this is the end. What’s the first thing that you think about when there’s a meis? You think it’s the end. No matter how much your brain tells you that the neshama lives forever, when you look at that dead body it hits you between the eyes: “Look, he’s dead now. It’s over, finished.”

There was once a man in the shul by us, a frum man, whose father died. So I went to console him, be menachem avel, nisht eingedacht and he broke down weeping as I was speaking to him. He told me that it hurt him so much, he was pained so much, because at the time when his father died, he looked at his father's body and he saw the lifeless lump of skin and bones, and he felt that it was the end, a complete end; his father is no longer. Of course, this man was a ma’amin. But all of the ani ma’amins that he rattled off after shachris for so many years, come crashing down into a heap of rubble, at the sight of the lifeless body of his father.

And that’s what happened to Eisav — he fell down from his convictions. You have to understand, that was the ayeif — he was weary not only physically, but he was weary spiritually. He was knocked out and discouraged and for a short moment he lost his footing – his perspective on life.

Losing the Leadership Privilege

And that’s why when the tired and discouraged Eisav came back from the funeral and he saw that his brother was cooking a pottage so he took a look at the soup of red lentils and he said, הַלְעִיטֵנִי נָא מִן הָֽאָדֹם הָֽאָדֹם הַזֶּה – “Give me now to eat from this red red” (ibid. 25:30). Now, that’s not all he said; I’m sure there was a conversation there and Eisav expressed some of his dissatisfaction and discouragement. And Yaakov was a sharp young man and he heard what Eisav was getting at; he saw the weakness in Eisav, the relaxation of his conviction in Olam Habo.

Now, we could give a little bit of limud z’chus, positive thinking, on Eisav and say that he was ayeif, he was confused and that in a few days, it would have passed. I’m sure Eisav would have reverted to his family’s principles and he would have been restored to his composure, but on this particular day the sight of death knocked Eisav flat on his back. The sight of death made him lose sight for a moment that הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה דּוֹמֶה לִפְרוֹזְדוֹר בִּפְנֵי הָעוֹלָם הַבָּא — This world is only a vestibule leading into the Next World. It’s a long hallway, but it’s a hallway nonetheless. And what’s the only purpose in this world? הַתְקֵן עַצְמְךָ – prepare in the hallway in order to enter into the grand ballroom הַתְקֵן עַצְמְךָ בִּפְרוֹזְדוֹר, prepare yourself in the vestibule, כְּדֵי שֶׁתִּכָּנֵס לִטְרַקְלִין, in order to enter the dining hall.

Eisav lost his perspective and for a moment he thought that the vestibule is the dining hall. It’s like a man who comes to a wedding and even before he takes off his coat and checks it in, he pulls out a bottle of brandy and he drinks it all out and he starts dancing and singing. The wedding is inside but he’s dancing in the vestibule. And he extends all of his energy dancing in front of the coat checker instead of dancing in front of the chassan and kallah. He’s living it up until finally he falls down and they have to tote him home in a taxi – he’s finished for the night! A man like that doesn’t understand what a vestibule is for, and that’s what Eisav did on that day.

Now, when Yaakov saw his brother so discouraged by the phenomenon of death, so focused on this world, he understood right away that Eisav wasn’t the right man to be the bechor, the leader of the family. Avraham passed away? So what about it?! It’s the Next World that is important! And when he saw that Eisav had lost sight of the basic fundamentals – because what is more basic than Olam Habo – so Yaakov thought in his heart, “Now is the time to do something for the future of our people. We don’t want our children to say, אֱלֹקֵינוּ וֵאלֹקֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ אֱלֹקֵי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹקֵי יִצְחָק וֵאלֹקֵי עֵשָׂו,” - The G-d of our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Eisav - and therefore, he said, “Sell me your bechorah because you’re not capable, not worthy of such an opportunity.” A man who can lose sight – even for a brief moment – of the important truth that this world is only a vestibule before eternity can’t be the bechor of the family.

Father Of The Lentil People

Of course, Yaakov Avinu didn’t say it like that – he couldn’t say it to an older brother; in those days they respected older brothers – but in his heart Yaakov was telling Eisav: “Look – if you are so discouraged by the phenomena of death, by the passing of a tzaddik, it means that you have lost sight of the real meaning of life, and therefore, מִכְרָה כַיּוֹם אֶת בְּכֹרָֽתְךָ לִֽי – sell me your bechora, your birthright.

And even though Eisav said very frum words – he motivated it with professions of humility: הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ לָמוּת –I’m going to die; so what is this world anyhow? This world is nothing, וְלָמָּה זֶּה לִי בְּכֹרָה – What do I need kavod for? — but what does the Torah say about it though? The Torah criticizes him bitterly. I don’t think there’s another place in the Torah where Eisav is criticized as he is in this parsha. וַיֹּאכַל וַיֵּשְׁתְּ וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלַךְ — He ate lentils, he drank some wine, and he got up and went away, וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו אֶת הַבְּכֹרָה — Eisav scorned the bechora.

That’s tremendous criticism of him: You had an opportunity to be an oived Hashem, to make use of this world for achievement and gain merit in the service of Hashem, and you gave it away so lightly?! וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו אֶת הַבְּכֹרָה. The gemara says שָׁט אֶת הַבְּכוֹרָה — he despised the bechora because he lost sight of Olam Habo for a moment.

And that, the Torah tells us, is the real reason the people of Edom got their name. עַל כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמוֹ אֱדוֹם — They are the Red Lentil people. It’s an eternal reminder that Eisav lost his opportunity for greatness because he forgot what this world is for. Instead of being a name of honor – the admoni, one who was born for greatness – he became Edom, the one who traded his opportunity for greatness for a bowl of red lentils. And that’s the eternal label attached to Eisav. He’s the one who forgot his purpose of life because he weakened for a moment and he traded everything away for a bowl of red lentils.