And [Esau] said: ‘… he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright [bechor]; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing.’
What is this “birthright” that Esau is talking about? The Torah tells us that Yaakov bought the birthright from Esau for a bowl of food, and that Esau spurned it by selling it. But what is the “it”? And how is this “birthright” Esau’s to sell?
We can rule a few things out. We know that the “birthright” is not the same thing as the blessing that Yaakov steals – or Esau would not have separated the two. We also know that it is not necessarily that which belongs to the firstborn – since the Torah makes it clear that a first born son (like Ishmael) does not necessarily inherit from their father, so it cannot really be a right that is bequeathed as a right of birth.
So what on earth did Yaakov think he was buying – and what Esau thought he was selling?
I think the answer can be found by seeing how the word for birthright, bechor, is used in the Torah. The first time it appears is with Abel’s offering:
And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings [from the bechor] of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering (Gen. 4:4)
So what is the bechor? It is the offering G-d loves, because of the driving desire of the offeror! The bechor is at least a token connection to someone who seeks to connect with G-d, and to receive G-d’s favor in return. More specifically, the bechor is a sacrifice, a dedication – much like Yitzchak himself had been designated as a sacrifice to G-d.
Yaakov, by seeking the bechor, is saying he wants to be offered to G-d, dedicated to Him. In other words, Yaakov seeks a reciprocal relationship with our Creator.
This explains why Esau could spurn the bechor, the birthright: he never sought a connection with G-d. But he does seek a connection with his father, whom he clearly serves, and who loves him in turn. That connection was supposed to come with the blessing that Yaakov stole. We can thus re-translate Esau’s plaintive: “he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing,” as, “he took away my relationship with G-d, and now he has taken away my relationship with my father.”
The amazing thing is how very prescient this statement becomes. Yitzchak had favored and loved Esau, but at this moment, the father turns on the son! The ultimate blessing was to inherit the lineage of Avraham and Yitzchak, the blessing of “your seed shall inherit the land.” But this blessing was given, just before Yaakov leaves, to Yaakov and not to Esau!
What happened? What changed Yitzchak’s mind? Wasn’t Esau the wronged party?
Esau, in his own mind, becomes a victim. At the moment he cries out, he changes from the man of action to the man who has been wronged, who wallows in the injustice of it all. Esau becomes passive, resentfully complaining that his brother had done him wrong. Oblivious to the bigger picture, Esau never tries to reconnect with G-d, and even his half-steps to reconcile with his father (by taking on a non-Canaanite wife) do not manage to close the gap. Esau has assimilated with the peoples around him. He becomes a victim in his own mind, to avoid responsibility for his own actions, and conceding to the circumstances in which he finds himself.
In the eyes of his father, Esau has been transformed. Judaism must be carried by those who are proactive, who boldly do what they think is right – even when they might well be wrong! And that person was Yaakov, who seized the moment, even if he did it in error. Esau, by contrast, quit. And then he whined about it.
Esau’s statement “he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing,” also tells Yitzchak something very important indeed: that Yaakov craves a relationship not only with his father, but has, for years, also craved that relationship with G-d! The purchased “bechor” is nothing more than a symbol, that Yaakov wants what Abel had, even if only briefly: G-d’s favor.