Now vs. LaterNovember 14, 2012 - 5:00 am
“Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?” –Genesis 25:32
The Torah portion for this week, Toldot, is from Genesis 25:19—28:9 and Malachi 1:1–2:7.
What was Esau thinking? Why would he trade his birthright for a bowl of soup?
Let’s back up to where the scene begins. Esau had just returned from an exhausting day. He was utterly famished. He saw his brother Jacob making some red lentil soup, and he wanted some badly.
Esau: “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” (Genesis 25:30).
Jacob: “First sell me your birthright” (Genesis 25:31)
Esau: “Look, I am about to die . . . What good is the birthright to me?”
And so the deal is done.
Now, was Jacob being unfair? Was he taking advantage of a dying man? The Jewish Sages explain that when Esau said that he was about to die, he wasn’t really dying. He was explaining his philosophy on life. Underlying this statement was Esau’s outlook: “Life is short, so eat, drink, and be merry. What good will a promise of some future reward do for me now? Now, I am hungry. Now, I want soup. The birthright is of no use to me now.” That is why the Scripture says, “So Esau despised his birthright” (Genesis 25:34).
This passage is priceless. It shows us the horrible consequences of instant gratification. The allure of the here and now is blinding. As observers, we can see the foolishness of Esau’s decision. He sacrificed his entire future for a few moments of pleasure. But then again, we do that all of the time.
Who hasn’t been in this situation? After just deciding to diet, you are suddenly accosted by a piece of chocolate cake (or vanilla, if you aren’t a chocolate fan). What do you do? You can eat the cake, enjoy it for ten minutes max, and then pay for it tomorrow when you get on the scale. Or, you can push the cake away and feel deprived for a few moments, reaping the benefits when the pounds slip away. We all know the right thing to do. But my guess is that many of us might eat that cake anyway. We too often sacrifice the future for the sake of the moment.
The simple example of cake is much like the bigger struggle we encounter in our daily lives. We are constantly faced with decisions that come down to what feels good in the moment and what’s better for us in the long term. We have to choose between what feels good for our temporal body and what’s truly nourishing for our eternal spirit. This week’s Torah reading reminds us that while it’s hard to adapt to the long-term view of life, it doesn’t make any sense to live any other way. The here and now is nothing compared to eternity.