Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished”-which is why he was named Edom. Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” And Esau said, “I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?” But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright. –Genesis 25:29-34 (JPS Tanakh)
Let there be no immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. For you know that even afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears. –Hebrews 12:16-17
We usually think of right and wrong as based on some set of formal or informal standards. For religious people, there tends to be a formal code against which actions are judged morally. It’s a little more fuzzy if you are a secular person, but that amorphous entity known as political correctness seems to be the final arbiter of proper actions (I tend to think of it as the doctrine of “Thou shalt not offend anybody”) in humanistic philosophy or atheism.
The example I’ve presented, from this week’s Torah Portion Toldot may seem to be difficult to understand in terms of how right and wrong are defined. Just what did Esau do that was so wrong? If it was his birthright, why shouldn’t he sell it for a bowl of red stew or anything else?
We don’t have a concept of the “rights of the first born” in modern, western society, so the question of Esau’s “sin” is mysterious to us. It cannot be understood outside of it’s literary and religious context and it is that context that provides the actions of Esau and Jacob with meaning. The First Fruits of Zion commentary on Toldot offers some illumination.
Whenever we allow our appetites to rule us, we are following in the footsteps of Esau. How often our desire for “red, red stuff” dictates our decisions! Opportunities to honor or despise our birthright pass before us on a daily basis. We are constantly placed in positions where we must decide between what we crave and what is right. A man who lets his appetites control him is a godless man. For many men, sexual temptation is the “red, red stuff” for which they are willing to compromise their birthright. For others it may be the desire for power or control. For others it may be desire for possessions. For still others, it may lie in the realm of physical addictions. All of these are signs of Esau. They are the “red, red stuff”.
Esau accepted Jacob’s offer. The Torah artfully describes Esau’s cavalier exit with a succinct series of one-word verbs: “He ate, he drank, he rose, he left and he despised his birthright.”
In some ways, the exchange between Esau and Jacob becomes a metaphor for how people confuse their priorities and their values, choosing something quick and satisfying at the expense of what is precious and enduring. The transaction becomes a lesson and a cautionary tale for people of faith to stay the course and to cling to our principles rather than giving in to momentary stressors, challenges, and temptations.
Now let’s take one giant step backward.
Right and wrong are defined within a contextual framework. Without such a framework, morals, ethics, and values either do not exist or become highly subjective (something is good because it is good for me or I like it, regardless of its impact on you). As I previously mentioned, religion isn’t the only framework that defines right and wrong. The secular world has a set of standards and morals that guide people in “right living”, but those standards often contradict what religious people think of as proper behavior. To be fair, between different religions and even within different sects of the same religion, the standards for right and wrong vary…sometimes by quite a bit.
The recent Sydney Morning Herald news story When women and girls are the enemy illustrates how members of the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community are seemingly “at war” with women, or at least with their appearance in photos and advertisements, which they believe is immodest and sexually “tempting”. But from an outsider’s viewpoint, it’s one thing to object to an image on moral grounds and something else entirely to commit acts of vandalism to enforce those morals. This example is uncomfortably close to a proposal in Saudi Arabia that may require women, who are normally completely covered from head to toe except for their eyes (and they have to see somehow), to cover even their eyes if these women have tempting eyes.
I suppose the philosophy behind both sets of behaviors is that these Jewish and Muslim men are incredibly concerned that they’ll be inspired to some sort of sexual attraction by women and are making the women (or the photo ads of women) responsible for the men’s feelings. I’m sure I’ll receive some sort of rebuttal about what I just said and I admit that I lack the context by which to completely understand what these Jewish and Muslim men are thinking and feeling, but like I said, right and wrong are defined contextually. For instance, seeing a little, red-headed girl as the official icon for the Wendy’s Hamburger restaurant chain is no big deal to me, but it might seem offensive to a conservative Jewish or Muslim man.
OK, to be fair, just about every guy has to deal with the struggle of objectifying women in terms of appearance, and if you are a Christian and seriously consider what Jesus taught in Matthew 5:28, then this really is a problem that men must address. In Christianity and in most forms of Judaism however, the responsibility is given to the men and not to the women since it is our eyes, and our brain, and our emotions that are at the root of obedience or disobedience, not the fact that women exist physically and visually.
I mentioned taking one giant step backward before. Let’s take another one.
Is God an Objective being? That is, does God exist independently of whatever religion and creed we happen to follow? Most of us should say “yes”. God doesn’t need us to be a Lutheran or a Catholic or a Reform Jew or an Orthodox Jew simply to exist as God. Moses said:
Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the whole world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God. –Psalm 90:2
And David said:
The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
the LORD is enthroned as King forever. –Psalm 29:10
If God existed before Creation and He will continue after all things have passed away, then God’s standard of morality, correctness, and justice are certainly independent of our religious orientation or lack thereof. Sure, it’s probably not as simple as that, but I have to start somewhere. The Talmud considers morality to be somewhat mutable and changeable with the needs of each generation, but there is a limit beyond which Jewish people (and Christians and Muslims) say, “this is always wrong.” God must have that limit too, only in His case, His is the ultimate limit. God is His own context. He is, in reality (however you want to define that term), is the final arbiter of right and wrong.
God didn’t really invent “religion”. A religious framework is the interface by which people define and live out the actions they believe to be the will of God. However, religion is a man-made construct designed to interpret the Divine and as something man-made, it is not perfect…probably far from perfect, as a method of interpretation and definition.
How do people choose a religion, assuming they are religious? If you are born into a religious Jewish or Christian family, there is a possibility you will continue the religion of your parents because it is what you have learned and it is a continuation of your family and culture. But that’s not an absolute assurance. Some Jews have chosen to convert to other religions, to reject the religious aspect of their Judaism, or in extreme cases, to reject being Jewish in any lived manner. Someone born into a Christian home isn’t guaranteed to grow up a Christian and many kids leave the church the minute they are old enough to effectively tell their parents, “No.”
Why do secular people choose one religion or another? I don’t want to take up time and space by describing my own experience of becoming a believer in detail, but let’s just say a series of very unlikely events occurred that resulted in me accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior and starting to attend a specific church in my community. My Jewish wife introduced me to the local Messianic Jewish (One Law) congregation and I shifted my religious orientation. Within the past year, I’ve shifted again based on my assessment of the validity of the One Law proposition, while my wife, over the past several years, transitioned into a more traditional (non-Messianic) Jewish faith.
But is my religious orientation (admittedly in a state of flux at the moment) any more or less valid than any other Christian in or out of any other church (or synagogue) or any religious Jew or any Muslim or any other spiritual or faith group?
My personal opinion about why we have so many different religious and spiritual traditions in the world is that we, as human beings, are wired by God to seek Him. On the other hand, as human beings, we want what we want and we want it our way. If how we perceive God’s requirements in one system doesn’t meet our personal requirements for a faith community (whatever those requirements may be), then we go shopping for another faith community until we find one that fits the bill.
I know, that’s kind of cynical, but that’s what we do as human beings. We simply tell ourselves that the religious tradition we have selected is the “true” religion and all of the others are wannabes and posers.
But how do you know you are right in your choice? How can you be so sure? Remember, your entire understanding of what is right and what is wrong is based on the religious, spiritual, or moral context you have selected for yourself (and even secular humanism and atheism is a “moral context”). How you think of others and how you treat them is based on that context. How you think of yourself and your place in the universe is based on that context. You chose it. You live with it. If you don’t like it, you can change it. Many people have.
It’s a tough question. What makes you right and everyone else wrong? Or, turning the question around, what makes me right and everyone else wrong? How can I be so sure? What if I made a mistake. If God exists, if God cares for human beings, if God has an objective set of moral standards He wants people to understand and live by, how can we know them and how can we be sure; how can I be sure, that the values I’m living by right now are the ones He has for me?
Or for you?
If Rabbi Freeman is right, that set of standards and context is extremely important.
There is no such thing as a mitzvah done alone.
In a mitzvah, space, time and consciousness converge. You nod your consent, and a flood of generations flows through you to do the rest.
Together with you, every soul of our people, wherever they may be, are swept along in the current.
That works for Rabbi Freeman within his conceptual framework but what about the rest of us? In Judaism, the metaphor can be extended to include performing every mitzvah as a partner with God. Is God waiting to perform the mitzvot with us? Are we are living a life of enduring substance or just noshing on a pot of yummy red stew?
3 thoughts on “Red Stew in Context”
This may surprise you, but I only have one thing to say:
“Very well said”.
Shalom to you and your family.
Shalom to your and yours as well, Russ. Thanks.