Toldot. Living for Today, or for Tomorrow?
In 2018, the UK Office of National Statistics report showed that 53% of young people – meaning those between the ages of 22 and 29 – have no savings at all. One reason, they explained, was that among participants in the poll,
“There was general agreement that young people should be spending their money on enjoying themselves while they were still young. This meant that they prioritised spending now over saving for the future.”
Should we be living for now, or for the long term?
One scene in our parsha relates to this fundamental dilemma, and it shows a vast divide between the two protagonists of the parsha, Yaakov and Esav:
Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. 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.” 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, he drank, he rose, he left. Esau spurned the birthright. (25:29-34)
he ate, he drank, he rose, he left. Esau spurned the birthright.
Why did Jacob want the birthright so badly?
Why does the scene end with the biblical narrator stating that Esav “spurned” the birthright? Didn’t he value it?
Commentaries point to the way Esau acts: “He ate, he drank, he rose, he left”; seeing the essence of this scene as a clash between two sensibilities, two mindsets, exemplifying the difference between Jacob and Esau:
“A fool (meaning those who do not live a principled life) wants only to eat, to drink and to indulge their pleasures in the here and now; not to live with a concern for the future.” (Ramban)
Nahmanides explains that Esau spurned the birthright because it was only of value in the distant future, after his father’s death. Esau valued only the present, only what he could eat and enjoy in the moment. In contrast, Jacob was very much concerned with the future leadership of the family, with the divine covenantal promises. These would be realized many generations hence, and yet, that was primary in his mind.
How do you see Esau’s behaviour in this scene?
Did Jacob take advantage of Esau? Was Esau really “at the point of death” or is that just a turn of phrase?
What do you think about the issue of enjoyment now, versus investment for the future?
What is the balance in YOUR life between current pleasures, and investments in you future? Do you ever feel a tension between the two?
Should our focus be on ourselves, or on the future of the Jewish people?
In truth, this is more complex than it would seem. I imagine we all want to enjoy life now, and we all wish to invest in the future. The question is one of balance.
When we see a friend throwing away their future for the present, we realize they have got it wrong.
When we see people who seem to have no sense of a future beyond themselves, that clashes with a Jewish value system.
2 weeks ago, the NYTimes published an article (The End of Babies. 16 Nov 2019) that I found quite upsetting. It spoke of people who simply are uninterested in having children. Why? Because it interfered with their luxurious lifestyle.
"People felt that they had to "grapple with the promise and pressure of seemingly limitless freedom, which can combine to make children an afterthought, or an unwelcome intrusion on a life that offers rewards and satisfactions of a different kind — an engaging career, esoteric hobbies, exotic holidays."
For me, that is an example of people who abandon the future for the short-term present. Interestingly, the article quotes a Prof Trent Macnamara:
"Economic conditions, he notes, are only part of the picture. What may matter more are “the little moral signals we send each other,” he writes in a forthcoming essay, signals that are “based on big ideas about dignity, identity, transcendence and meaning.”
Today, we have found different ways to make meaning, form identities and relate to transcendence.In this context, he said, having children may appear to be no more than a “quixotic lifestyle choice” absent other social cues reinforcing the idea that parenting connects people “to something uniquely dignified, worthwhile and transcendent.”
That is the question. Are we seeking something meaningful beyond satisfying our desires, here and now?
Jacob is looking for a transcendent value system, and that is our Abrahamic legacy. Esau was totally absorbed by his own needs, by the call of the moment.