I believe that this Parsha contains one of the earliest recorded existential conflicts. Here is the scene (Bereshit Chapter 25).
Esav, a young burly red-headed hunter returns from a strenuous hunt. He did not find any prey on this particular day and is feeling very hungry. He walks into his home and smells something delicious. An aromatic red lentil stew, his younger brother’s special recipe, is simmering on the fire. Esav wants some of that soup!
Esav: Pour into me some of the red-stuff for I am exhausted!
Yaacov: You want my soup? Trade me your status as the first-born!
Esav: Well, I am going to die anyway, so of what use to me is a birthright?
Esav swears his first-born birthright over to his little brother. (Yep they are twins, but Esav came out first. If you know twins, or are a twin, the fact that one came out first can be quite a big deal!) And the rest is history – the children of Yaacov and the children of Esav become eternal archetypal enemies.
Not so wonderful!
Growing up I always learned about Esav as the “evil twin.” He terrorized his brother and was stupid to sell his birthright – he got the “short end of the stick” that what was coming to him. This year, the response of Esav really jumped out at me in a way that I could very much relate.
“Well, I am going to die anyways, so of what use to me is a birthright?”
Personally, I ebb and flow in my ability to see the world as a meaningful place and thus my engagement in the world also can sometimes feel void of purpose. Experiencing life as meaningful takes practice and is not a simple given. The narrative of Yaacov and Esav seems to take place in their adolescence. Can we actually condemn a teenager for stating the obvious truth – Nothing lasts forever, so why should I strive for success? Think back to when you were a teen (or maybe just last Tuesday), it is quite natural to wrestle with this perspective.
So was Esav a boor or just someone who tended towards existential conflicts of meaning? Being a hunter, Esav knows that the world can seem quite random. On the hunt, you win some, you lose some. There is not an exact reason why a swooping bird catches this rodent and not the one next to it. Perhaps Esav, in that moment was taken by this fact – even with a God in the world, things seem to just happen.
Introducing the perspective of the existential into this portion we see a dichotomy between a “Yaacov way” of looking at the world and an “Esav way” of looking at the world. On the one hand the world is full of meaning that lasts beyond the life of one individual. The blessings from the past generations impact the present, and the actions of those in the present will shape the direction of the future. On the other hand, we are stuck in the finiteness of life. There is no continuity in the random unfolding of one generation to the next – Who will die, who will live? Who will be remembered? Who will be forgotten?
As you may know, I think about these topics a lot (www.meaningthroughebing.com) and here is my short answer to this complicated dilemma. Both perspectives are absolutely valid (and there are many positions in between!) We can become skillful in knowing when to embrace the meaningfulness of a moment versus when we might tone down our own self-importance. For example, when your commitment at work results in the decay of your social relationships – it is time to evaluate the real meaning of your work. On the contrary, if you are having trouble making a decision, you might tap into your passions and intentions and remember that to live fully is to make choices that appear meaningful in a particular moment.
This week, I feel bad for Esav. Not only does he struggle to see his life as meaningful, but his shallow self-esteem is affirmed by his parents choosing his younger brother over him. We see that this begins a chain reaction whereby he chooses a wife that will specifically antagonize his father (28:9). His father, Isaac, was once Esav’s biggest fan. I want to suggest that this Parsha teaches us an important lesson about how we can affirm or aggravate the sense of meaning of another person. As we see in the story of Esav, it can be the meaning of those closest to us that are impacted most deeply by our actions and attitudes towards them.