By Dr. Laurence Boxer
What do we learn from Esau? It seems to me that, largely through his negative example, Esau teaches an important lesson.
Esau and Jacob, twins, first appear in this week’s Torah reading, parashat Toldot. In a well-known episode, Esau returns home famished and finds Jacob preparing a stew. Dramatically exaggerating his hunger, Esau trades his birthright to Jacob for a meal. A commentator suggests we read Gen. 25:34 in a rapid staccato fashion to appreciate the haste and contempt of Esau’s actions: “… and he ATE and he DRANK and he ROSE and he LEFT and so he SPURNED his birthright.”
Later in the Torah, in parashat Vayishlach, Esau approaches a reunion of the brothers with an army, apparently intent on killing Jacob; but he seems to have a last-minute change of heart, or perhaps tactics. Gen. 33:4 tells us, “Esau ran to greet him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” Multiple commentators note that the Hebrew word translated as “kissed” appears in the Torah scroll with unusual dots and say these indicate doubt of Esau’s sincerity. A wonderful Midrash explains that Esau impulsively decided to kill Jacob by biting his neck, but God protected Jacob by turning his neck into a column of marble; hence, Esau wept not from the emotion of meeting up with his long-absent twin but from the pain of a mouth full of broken teeth (and why did Jacob weep? He was suffering a painfully stiff neck).
At the end of Vayishlach, we read a list of descendants of Esau, many of whom became kings, presumably while the descendants of Jacob were enslaved in Egypt.
I see in these sections of Torah the lessons of patience and valuing long-term benefit. Esau chose immediate gratification of hunger over a future with the birthright, which signified the heritage of Abraham and Isaac. He chose the gratification of an immediate personal attack over the greater safety of employing his army. And the contrast in the fortunes of Esau’s and Jacob’s next several toldot – generations – shows us that quick success does not guarantee success in the long run.
During my teaching career, I was frustrated by students whose vision did not extend beyond the final exam; who showed little interest in learning lishma – for its own sake – or even for practical purposes such as career skills or cultural enrichment; whose questions were more concerned with what they should expect to echo on the next exam than with understanding material and using it for long-term benefit. Sometimes, students were encouraged in bad attitudes by other faculty and professional staff (not only at my most recent employer) who seemed to believe that the immediate blessings of popularity and high graduation rates were more important than learning as measures of institutional success. By contrast, my best students, and the colleagues I most respected, generally understood that the main purpose of a course is neither a grade on a transcript nor a checkoff of a degree requirement, but the transmission of knowledge that, for decades beyond the final exam, would enrich lives and empower futures. Esau showed the folly of focusing only on the short term. Let us teach our children and grandchildren to choose the lasting worth offered by Jacob’s heritage over the fleeting gratification offered by Jacob’s plate of beans.
Dr. Laurence Boxer is retired from his professorship of Computer and Information Sciences at Niagara University, where he also taught Mathematics. He also holds the title of Research Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at UB. At Temple Beth Tzedek, he is the Webmaster and chairs the Ritual Committee.