One day, Esau came home from hunting, exhausted and famished. He saw that his brother was cooking lentils and he asked for some. Jacob, always looking for an opportunity to take advantage of his brother, said, "First sell me your birthright" (verse 31). Esau, rather than protest, gave in and sold his birthright. Why?
Isn't it possible that, after putting up with Jacob's challenges and struggles for power for so many years, Esau just decided that he would be happier without the birthright of the firstborn? Esau may have wanted to say to Jacob, "If you want the birthright so much that you're willing to treat me so unkindly, take it. If keeping the birthright means that I have to put up with this behavior for the rest of my life, I would rather not have it."
This story was not the end of the struggles between Esau and Jacob. Later in this week's Torah portion, Jacob also tricked their father out of the blessing due to Esau. Esau was so enraged by this insult that Jacob had to run away from home in fear for his life (Genesis 27:41-45). The two brothers did not see each other again for more than twenty years. When they did, Jacob was terrified that Esau still would want to kill him. He was genuinely surprised to find that Esau bore no grudge and seemed happy with what he had in life (Genesis 33:4-11).
What happened? It seems that Esau discovered he could be happy without the birthright and his father's blessing. Maybe he was even happier without them than he would have been with them. Maybe, Esau learned, as the saying goes, "The problem with the rat race is that, even if you win, you're still a rat!"
In my experience, this can happen when people realize that they don't need (or can't have) something that they previously had struggled to attain or keep. Whether it is wealth, power, or status, letting go of the struggle often brings more happiness than the object of desire ever could have brought. Maybe you'll recognize yourself in these examples from my experience:
• A businessman was caught in a shady deal that cost him his business and most of his wealth. After the crisis, he found new meaning in life by pursuing his first love as an artist and discovered that it brought him greater joy than the money and prestige of his old job.
• A couple anguished over their failure to conceive a child and went to great expense to have one they "could call their own." After they gave up fighting infertility, they adopted a child and discovered such great happiness that they wished they had chosen to adopt from the beginning.
• A mother who had high ambitions for her son's career as an athlete was able to reconnect with her child in a more meaningful and healthy way after he failed to make it to the top of his sport. Both mother and child discovered that they were much happier without the constant pressure to compete.
I am in no way suggesting that there is something inherently wrong with striving for business success, conceiving and birthing a child, or pursuing athletic ambition. In the right context, those are things that can bring great happiness in life. (Your mileage may vary). For many of us, though, the blinders we can put onto our souls when we pursue goals unrelentingly can hide true happiness from us.
That might describe what happened to Jacob. He was so driven by his ambition that he failed to see how he hurt his brother, his parents, his father-in-law, his wives, and, ultimately, himself. It took a wrestling match with an angel (we'll get there in a few weeks) for him to let go of the drive to compete and to accept his life as it was. For better or for worse, Esau may have gotten there before he did.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Counting from Freedom to Covenant: Eternity
Sukkot: To Everything There is a Season