One subject that many people don’t like to discuss, even though it is an important part of life, is death; it makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Our portion, Toldot, deals with the rivalry between Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac and Rebecca, who, from the moment of birth – in fact, even in utero – fought with each other. Within the context of this rivalry there is one particular episode that offers us two approaches to death – and, through these, a philosophy of life.
The birthright and the legacy of Abraham
The beginning of our parsha discusses how Jacob is making the potage of lentils, when Esau comes in from the field and says he is hungry and wants from Jacob’s food. Jacob says, sell me your birthright; Esau agrees, and sells it for a pot of soup. The birthright was actually about who gets to continue the legacy of Abraham and Isaac. By acquiring the rights of the firstborn, Jacob acquired the right to continue the legacy of Abraham and Isaac – we talk about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not Abraham, Isaac and Esau. The rivalry as to who would be the heir to the legacy and values of the family manifests itself in the parsha, with the fight over who should get the blessings. In the end, Jacob gets the blessings and he assumes the mantle of leadership. He has twelve sons who become the twelve tribes of Israel, the foundations of the Jewish people.
What is interesting about the sale of the birthright is that according to the Midrash, which Rashi quotes, it took place on the day of Abraham’s death. Rashi explains that Jacob was making food to comfort his father, Isaac, who had just lost his father, Abraham; lentils are served to the mourners because they are round and thus symbolise the circular nature of life. Rashi brings further that the Midrash says that Esau had been out hunting and that he had committed the three cardinal sins that day: murder, sexual immorality and idolatry. According to the Midrash, Abraham died a few years before he was supposed to because G-d did not want him to have to see his grandson Esau go so far off the path of the values that he had fought for. Abraham came into a pagan world and said there is one G-d and there is a system of right and wrong, of morality. For Abraham to see his grandson go off the path would have caused him tremendous anguish and so G-d, in His mercy, shortened his life by a few years. The day that Esau goes completely off the path is the day he sells the birthright, which demonstrates Esau’s attitude towards the legacy of Abraham and Isaac; and the fact that the sale takes place the day that Abraham dies makes the sale of the birthright all the more poignant.
Two approaches to death
We have here two contrasting approaches to death: Esau looks at the death of his grandfather, realises that life is short and concludes that he must “live it up” today – eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. Jacob looks at the death of his grandfather, realises that life is short, and concludes that he must attach himself to eternal values – the legacy of Abraham and Isaac, the connection with Hashem. Jacob knows that the soul is immortal and returns to G-d, and therefore we should do as many mitzvot as we can in this world. The first thing that Jacob does after his grandfather’s death is an act of kindness – making food for the mourners. Esau, in contrast, goes wild. He realises life is short and so he grabs whatever hedonistic opportunities he can.
When Jacob and Esau negotiate the sale of the birthright, what they are really negotiating is their perceptions of the world; death changes our perceptions of life. If death did not exist, life would be meaningless. The fact that life is limited is what gives us a framework to do something meaningful with it. We know that life in this world is limited; the question then is, how do we react to this limited lifespan? Do we focus solely on the physical – eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die? Or do we say life must be about something greater, about attaching ourselves to things of eternal value because the soul is immortal and lives on in the next world? Either we attach ourselves to eternity or we sink further into the ephemeral nature of this world.
Being satisfied with life
These two approaches to death are evident in a verse we read in last week’s parsha, in chapter 25 verse 8, which describes the death of Abraham: “And Abraham expired and he died at a good age, elderly and satisfied, and he was gathered unto his people.”
“Gathered unto his people” refers to the immortality of the soul. We don’t just die and disappear; rather, we return to the world of the souls; Abraham passes from this world and goes onto the next world where he is gathered unto his people. The word “satisfied” is used to describe how Abraham departed this world. The Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, says it means he felt satisfied with life as opposed to those who are obsessed with the physical world, who never feel satisfied. He quotes the verse from the Book of Ecclesiastes, which says in chapter 5 verse 9: “One who loves money will never be satiated with money.” All material things will never be enough; whatever we have, we will want more. The Midrash on Kohelet says: “No person leaves this world having fulfilled [even] half of his desires.” That is the nature of life in this physical world; if our whole focus is physical, then we are always going to feel empty.
The Vilna Goan compares the physical pleasures of this world to drinking salt water. You are thirsty so you drink; you think it’s quenching your thirst when actually the more you drink, the thirstier you become. If we were just physical bodies without a soul then all the physical pleasures of this world would satisfy us. But we are human beings, not just a physical body; we have a neshama, a soul, and the soul is always going to feel empty because it is not satisfied with material things. In the same way that the body needs nourishment, the soul needs nourishment. A person who is focused solely on the physical world is setting himself up for a life of emptiness. Hence the verse says Abraham was “satisfied”; his soul felt fulfilled, he had lived a life of purpose.
The Ramban says that the mark of a righteous person is a feeling of satisfaction from life in this world, a sense that one has lived well. The Torah does not say to ignore physical needs; Judaism is not a religion that demands that we give up the physical pleasures of this world, but rather that we harness them within the context of our value system. The food, the money and all worldly pleasures have to be in the context of a much larger value system that nourishes the soul, namely, the connection to G-d and doing mitzvot.
The world is set up such that we cannot pursue happiness. We can pursue mitzvot and good deeds, and through them attain happiness, but if we pursue happiness as an end in itself we are doomed to unhappiness. The more we try to grab it, the more elusive it is. This was the life philosophy of Esau. We may wonder, how could he commit all these sins on the day of his grandfather’s passing? The answer is that people who are so entrenched in the physical world get more and more obsessed with it, and as they watch time slipping by they need to hold on to the physical world because for them that’s all there is. Esau panicked when he saw how short life is. He thought that the physical world was slipping through his fingers so he had better get more of it before he dies. The Torah says no, we have mitzvot, we have a neshama, we have Hashem. Though life in this world is temporary, life in the next world is eternal and we must focus on that eternity.
The Kli Yakar, another one of our commentators on the Chumash, has a different interpretation. He says “satisfied” means that Abraham felt he’d got enough from life, that he didn’t feel he needed more time on earth. The person who is completely obsessed with the physical, no matter how long he lives in this world, will never feel he’s lived enough because he maintains this is his only life. Abraham felt he’d had a good, long life. He had done what he needed to do and was ready to move on; he could leave this world with a sense of satisfaction. But for a person whose whole life is only about the physical, it’s never enough; they are never ready to leave.
Thus we see that the Ramban interprets the word “satisfied” qualitatively; are we satisfied with our life now? The Kli Yakar interprets it quantitatively; can we ever be satisfied with the number of years we have on this earth? The Kli Yakar is saying that if our whole life is physical, then we can never be satisfied. The years we have on earth are never going to be enough.
Every moment is precious
Having said that, it is important to realise that every minute of life is precious. We know that halacha values every minute and that for pikuach nefesh, to save a life, one can transgress virtually all the commandments, even if it’s just to extend life by one minute or even one second. There is a well-known story told about the Vilna Goan that on his deathbed he was crying, and his students asked him why and he said because in this world, for a few roubles he can buy a pair of tzitzit and earn his eternal reward in heaven, but in the next world, one cannot do mitzvot anymore. He was crying that his time to perform mitzvot had run out. Our time in this world, inasmuch as it is only a physical world, is precious. We must maximise our time on earth so that when we die, we are satisfied.
Thus we see how the two meanings of the word “satisfied” reflect a whole attitude towards death and a philosophy of life. We live in a physical world – and the Torah teaches us to embrace it. But at the same time we must realise there is so much more to it. We must dedicate ourselves to the deeper meaning of life, to fulfilling the mitzvot and connecting to the eternal values that Hashem has given us in His Torah. We must remember that our souls are on a journey; we spend some time in this world and then go on to an eternal world. With a proper perspective on life, we can be truly satisfied, with a deep inner peace that comes from doing the right thing and living in accordance with the will of Hashem.