Thursday, November 27, 2008

Esau to Jacob: 'Carpe Diem, Dude'

The most famous meal in the Bible - Jacob's pot of lentils. His brother Esau comes from the field hungry and asks about the red stew. 'Who died?' - knowing that lentils are the food of mourners. 'Our grandfather, Abraham' -Jacob replied. Esau halted - 'Zeidi is dead?' Jacob nods, Esau pauses, composes himself and proclaims - 'if Abraham is dead, there is no Judge and no Justice,' and sells his birthright to his brother Jacob.

Esau did not think that Abraham was going to live forever. To be sure, Abraham told his children and grandchildren the covenant that G-d had sealed with him - that his seed would inherit the land of Israel. Esau knew as much. He also knew that his grandfather would die - at 'a ripe age,' as G-d had told him - before seeing that inheritance. But there was another part of G-d's message that Esau also remembered: that Abraham's offspring were to be enslaved as 'strangers in a strange land' where they would be 'oppressed and enslaved for four hundred years.' Esau was the first born, and he thought he would bear the brunt of the exile. 'Not for me,' he thought. So our sages reveal the motivation for what the Bible tells us happened next: Esau 'ate, drank, got up and left, and scorned his birthright.'

From Esau's perspective, as long as Avraham was alive, as long as the family dwelled together in the Land of Israel - so long as G-d's presence was immediately felt, then he could believe in the one true Judge and his Justice. But when Abraham died and there was the likelihood of exile, then Esau claims 'there is no Judge and no Justice.' No more birthright. Better to enjoy, to eat and drink. 'Pass the lentils,' he tells his brother. Carpe diem. Sieze the day for tomorrow we die. For now, it's party on.

Jacob however is different. His faith is born when G-d's presence is no longer immediate; in the face of loss and death and exile, he agrees to buy the birthright -with all that entails. Esau knows for a certainty that his grandfather's seed will inherit the land. Just as assuredly as the 'tick' of a clock is followed by a 'tock,' Esau knows that the descendants of Abraham will receive their portion. But the duration between the 'tick' and the 'tock' - between the promise of redemption and its fulfillment - is interminable to Esau. The interim promises too much hardship. So he proclaims: 'There is no Judge, and no Justice.' Jacob by contrast - when he purchases the birthright - shows himselt ready to suffer the long night of exile.

Jacob embodies the faithful waiting of Israel - even after Abraham is dead - when there is no prospect of redemption, but rather suffering. As a people, today, we have our own 'tick'-'tock,' beyond the inheritance of the land promised to the Patriarch. Our 'tick' is Genesis, our 'tock,' the end of days, the coming of Mashiach. Sometimes the wait - the duration between the 'tick' and the 'tock' - seems interminable. So long that we may forget the end: 'is this the promised end?,' Shakespeare's King Lear asks anxiously. Not yet...

When Maimonides lists his principles of faith, number twelve of the thirteen is the belief in the Mashiach, the messenger of G-d - he is not divine himself - who proclaims the end of days. Maimonides does not merely say: 'I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Mashiach.' You would have thought that would suffice, but in an uncharacteristic expansiveness, Maimonides continues: 'and even though he delays - with all of this - I will wait, every day, for him to come.'

Even though he delays, the duration between the 'tick' and the 'tock' does seem endless! Yet even though he delays, אם כל זה - 'with all of this' - I will wait. 'With all of this' - if a principle of faith can be poignant and poetic this quailifes. 'This' - this is what Esau will not bear - the suffering, the anguish, the waiting for redemption. Yet the children of Israel, with all of this they declare, with all of this - they will nonetheless wait every day for him to come. And how much of this there has been!

My twelve year old daughter asks: 'Is Mashiach coming?'

'Yes! He is!'

'We want Mashiach now!'

We are a generation of instant gratification - even when it comes to Mashiach! Children can afford such an attitude. But as adults, it sometimes seems like there is 'no Judge and Judgement,' like the clock has permanently stopped, and that the 'tock' will never come. So we teach our children - and ourselves - not to be like Esau. For with the need for instant gratification comes disappointment, and the indulgence in the pleasures of the moment dressed up in Esau's resigned 'carpe diem!' Yes, we know Mashiach is coming - he is! - but we also know the fine art of waiting. 'With all this' - with Jacob - we still believe!


Tr8erGirl said...

Very nice!

Ad mosai?

Modern Girl said...

That was so informative! Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Kolbrener,
I think that in each and everyone of us there is a little bit of Yaakov AND Esav. The emphasis of your blog on spirtuallity brings out and strengthens the "Yaakov" in all of us.
Thank you very much!