Toldot: The ability to say ‘I made a mistake’

The inability to admit failure prevents man from trying to pass the test the next time.

November 20, 2014 21:09
4 minute read.
The Torah

The Torah. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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This week’s Torah portion, Toldot, deals with the complicated and intricate relationship between twins – Esau and Jacob. Esau was the “bechor,” the oldest, and Jacob was a few minutes younger than him. The difference in their personalities was very obvious, with Esau born “ruddy; he was completely like a coat of hair” and who grew up to be “a man who understood hunting,” while Jacob was “an innocent man, dwelling in tents.”

The Torah dedicates several verses to the story of the first confrontation between them. This story, to a large extent, reflects well-known human behavior, but when this behavior becomes a whole life perspective, it is very dangerous.

The Torah tells the story this way: “Now Jacob cooked a pottage, and Esau came from the field, and he was faint. And Esau said to Jacob, “Pour into [me] some of this red, red [pottage], for I am faint”; he was therefore named Edom [“Red”]. And Jacob said, ‘Sell me as of this day your birthright.’ Esau replied, ‘Behold, I am going to die; so why do I need this birthright?’ And Jacob said, ‘Swear to me as of this day’; so he swore to him, and he sold his birthright to Jacob. And Jacob gave Esau bread and a pottage of lentils, and he ate and drank and arose and left, and Esau despised the birthright” (Genesis 25:29-34).

This is seemingly an ordinary story. Jacob cooks a tasty dish and just as the food is ready to eat, Esau shows up from the field exhausted and hungry. He asks Jacob for the stew and Jacob sets up a test: Will Esau be willing to sell his birthright for the cooked food? Esau, exhausted and starving, agrees to the deal and sells his birthright to Jacob in exchange for which Jacob serves him the bread and the requested lentil stew.

We must understand this – this birthright was not just an honorary status inside the family. This was the family of Yitzhak Avinu, the son of Avraham Avinu, and it was pretty clear that the bechor, the older son, was the one who was going to continue the dynasty and establish the chosen nation. When Esau surrendered his birthright, he gave up the privilege of becoming “Esav Avinu”... for lentil stew...

But the story does not end here. Four more words are written in the Torah and they, especially they, complete the story for us. After eating the lentil stew, Esau gets up and leaves, but this is not enough for him. As it says, “Esau despised the birthright.” Also after his hunger was calmed and even after his mind was lucid and he was already able to look at the situation clearly, Esau had no regrets. On the contrary, he despised, scorned, and showed complete apathy toward the birthright.

Where did this stem from? Why did Esau disdain the birthright even when it was clear to everyone, and especially to Esau himself, that the deal that he had just made was a bad one? There is a phenomenon called “sin” or “failure.” This happens to everyone. A man has a value, a just principle that he wants to live by. In a moment of truth when he is faced with temptation and has to choose between the value and the temptation, occasionally he fails. It is natural. No one expects man not to occasionally fail. Of course, man is supposed to make the effort not to, but failure is a natural part of dealing with life’s challenges. We fail once or twice, and then manage to live up to our own expectations of ourselves. We fail again and again we move forward. This is what human life is like.

But the danger exists after the failure. Then, when the temptation is not as strong, when the internal struggle is not at its peak, man looks back and ponders what he just went through. Now he is faced with two options. One is to say to himself, “I made a mistake, I failed; next time I will try harder.” The second is to deny the value he did not live up to and say to himself, “That wasn’t so important.”

This is where Esau’s big failure occurred. When he was hungry and felt like he was going to die, he was not able to hold on to the birthright. He was tempted and sold the birthright to Jacob. But a minute later, when he was satisfied, he should have stood up to Jacob and protested the fact that he negotiated the birthright away from him at a moment of weakness.

What was required of Esau at this point was a cry of protest after his hunger had abated.

But Esau chose differently. He chose to despise the birthright, to tell himself that the birthright had no value. This is the true failure. The inability to admit failure prevents man from trying to pass the test the next time. In this way, man slides backward and with every failure and retreat from his previous stand, he becomes less and less ideological until he becomes the evil Esau.

The correct path to take is to say, “True, I made a mistake.

I am only human. Next time I will try harder and will be able to live up to my principles and my values.”

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

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