By: Rabbi Arthur Sandman
Birthright. The most disruptive, transformational Jewish communal innovation of the past quarter century or more. Consider. What other Jewish activity has become normative and pervasive for young Jews? What other new cause attracted funding widely from across the federation system? What brand name has achieved wider recognition in the Jewish community? And what a brilliant brand name.
It’s English, so it appeals to Americans. And yet it’s Jewish; where else do we encounter the word “birthright” but in a Jewish bible story? It’s non-institutional, breaking the more predictable tendency in our field toward a descriptive like “Jewish Council for Young Adult Travel to Israel” (which would be conveniently branded as JCYATI—get me a job in marketing!). And it is evocative of a value we want young Jews to take to heart—that a land and a heritage are theirs simply because they are Jews.
And therein the rub. Birthright seems to evoke God’s covenant with Abraham, in which He promised the land of Israel to Abraham’s offspring. But Abraham didn’t receive the land as a birthright; he was granted it through a covenant—a contract stipulating the rights and responsibilities of each party. If we’d expect an emotional scene in which Abraham grants the land as an inheritance to his son, forget about it. It is, again, God, who grants it directly to Isaac (after all, it seems that Abraham and Isaac never spoke again after father attempted to offer son in sacrifice — big surprise). So where is it that we encounter this idea of a “birthright”
It’s a story we all know — and if you don’t, this month’s Torah portions will remind (Toledot). A hungry adolescent who’d do anything for something to eat — now. Esau, returning from the hunt, smells Jacob’s simmering soup. Jacob, ever the kind, considerate brother… NOT … demands his brother’s Bechorah in return for the soup. (Bechorah, from Bechor meaning first born, referring to the inheritance conveyed to the oldest son. It seems we owe the pithy “birthright” to dear King James.) Jacob — who we come to know as our eponymous forefather Israel — in fact had no birthright. He simply purchased, extorted really, the benefits of his brother’s birthright.
But I don’t believe that Esau had a birthright to the land of Israel any more than father Isaac or grandpa Abraham. As with Abraham and as with Isaac, God Himself will later grant the land directly to Jacob in the famous ladder dream. The land is never truly a birthright, as the paragraphs of Shema remind us for the ages. It is a land that we receive in return to our fidelity to God. It is a land we must, in every generation, earn. In reality, we have no birthright!
Which brings us to Thanksgiving. After selling his birthright, the Torah tells of Esau:
וַיֹּאכַל וַיֵּשְׁתְּ וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלַךְ וַיִּבֶז Vayochal, vayesht, vayakom, vayelech, vayivez
And [Esau] ate, and drank, and rose, and left, and rejected [the birthright].
A stunning staccato of five verbs. Esau was ultimately unfit to receive the land of Israel from God because he was a boor. He could have negotiated over the soup and the birthright. He could have savored his food. He could have spoken to his brother as he ate. Nothing.
וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ–וּבֵרַכְתָּ אֶת-ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ, עַל-הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לָךְ
V’achalta, and you should eat. V’sava’ta, and you should be satisfied. U’verachta, and you should bless the Lord your God on the good land that I gave to you. Not the stark staccato of Esau, but the rising crescendo of goodness, leading to, of course, Thanksgiving.