Monday, November 24, 2008

My Uncle Esav

Issues of Entitlement

The Baal Shem Tov taught that whatever we see is meant for us to learn from. Rav Volbe in his sefer Alay Shor explicated that thought in the context of the teachings of chazal. He pointed out that the Talmud asked why is the portion dealing with laws of the nazirite juxtaposed to the laws of the sota, the woman suspected of adultery and the rites of discernment of her guilt or innocence? It answers that any person who will see the sota in her disgrace should immediately take on the vow of the nazir and take steps to withdraw from the pursuit of pleasure by refraining from drinking wine.

Rav Volbe noted that the message the sages were teaching is that its of no purpose to see another's debasement and simply say "oh what a bad person s/he must be". On the contrary if one sees another's debasement it means that one was meant to...that there was something in the other's shame that s/he was meant to take for him/herself, otherwise s/he would not be in the predicament to witness it. The Sages were teaching us through the example of the sota and the nazir that each of us needs to know that what we witness is about us even as it is about the other...and if, for example, a man sees a woman compromised by her pursuit of pleasure the message for him is that he best well curb his own appetite.

It is in that spirit that I want to explore the character of Esav. Sure we can say Esav was a rasha. But of what use is it to us to simply vilify Esav. If the story of the sota and the nazir are meant to teach us to use the stories of those we witness to consider our own chesronot ( shortcomings) then we should ask ourselves as well about the characters we encounter in the Torah year in and year out. How am I like Esav? What need his 'disgrace' teach me about who I am and where I need to improve.

With that in mind I thought about the Esav in me. What is Esav's signature shortcoming? Yes our sages say he was guilty of the most severe crimes. But none of that are we given explicitly to witness in the Torah text each year. What the Torah does show us is that Esav had a inappropriate and unjustified sense of entitlement. He sold his birthright to Yaakov, his own choice. And yet he complains bitterly that Yaakov took the blessings that go with the birthright from him unfairly.

Moreover he sold the birthright because, as the Torah tells us, he was so hungry he felt he would die unless he ate. As he said " behold I will die so what need have I for the birthright".
Yet even though Esav felt the birthright was not important enough for him to give his own life to maintain he was willing to take Yaakov's life in order to get it back as we see at the story's end where Esav is plotting to kill Yaakov to get the blessing back.How can we understand that Esav felt the birthright was not something for which he must make the ultimate sacrifice and yet it is something someone else should pay for with his life to have it returned to him.

Lastly when Esav sees that his father disdains the Canaanite women, sending Yaakov away to find himself a wife, Esav does not divorce his Canaanite wives, he simply adds another wife to his collection by marrying from the daughters of Yishamael.

Esav's whole life bespeaks a sense of false entitlement. He feels he is entitled to the birthright even though he sold it. He feels he is entitled to the blessings that accompany the birthright and therefore he does not have to pay for it in the same way someone else should pay to restore it to him. He feels he is entitled to choose his wives and even if his parents are displeased that's no reason to do more than make a gift to them by choosing another wife, not make the sacrifice of surrendering the wives he feels entitled to.

In witnessing this story I think about my own sense of entitlement and how it often times blinds me to the truth of relationship. How often do I see something happen to someone else that causes them shame or hurt and I say "that's too bad" and do nothing. Yet if the same shame or hurt were heaped on me I would yell out with outrage. How often do I expect others to do things for me that I would not necessarily do for them and become disappointed when they don't do it?
How often do I speak to other in harsh terms that I would hate spoken in a similar way to me ?
These and many other circumstances reflect an imbalance between the way I view myself and and the way I perceive others...all because of a false sense of entitlement that makes me feel I deserve more.

Yes my Uncle Esav needs to be my teacher. And I need to learn from him lessons for my life.
One of those lessons that reading/witnessing this portion of Toldot teaches me is to curb my sense of entitlement or at least accept that others are entitled just as much as I am. And I need to hear that lesson often because sometimes giving up my sense of entitlement is much easier said than done.

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