Life in this world has a limited time span. Our mortality hangs heavy on us – it charges everything we do, every choice we make, every path we pursue with a sense of urgency. Yet there are different responses to the limited and finite nature of earthly existence – responses that go right to the heart of our value system and worldview.
Two archetypal responses come to the fore in this week’s parsha, Toldot. Jacob and Esau, twin brothers and the children of Isaac and Rebecca, engage in a dialogue about the meaning of legacy and the future of the family of Isaac.
Esau is the firstborn and entitled to all of the accompanying rights and privileges. Jacob wants that inheritance for himself. According to Rashi, they are arguing not about financial inheritance, but spiritual inheritance – the legacy of continuing the mission of Abraham and Isaac, and carrying the responsibility of service of G-d in this world (Rashi says it is specifically referring to service in the future Temple).
The outcome of the discussion is that Jacob opts to be the bearer of that mission, the one who continues the legacy. Esau, exhausted and hungry, exchanges that legacy for a pot of lentil soup. Esau rationalises his decision with the following cryptic statement: “Behold I am going to die, and of what use to me is [the right of] the firstborn?” (Genesis 25:32)
According to the Rashbam, Esau is referring to the perils of being a hunter – that every moment, his life hangs in the balance, and therefore the long-term mission of continuing his father’s legacy is of little relevance.
The great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel, takes it a step further. He says Esau is in fact denying the possibility of life in the world to come – “Behold I am going to die” in this world, and that will be the end of the matter. Of what use is an eternal legacy, reasons Esau, if life is short and finite?
In essence, Esau’s worldview is centred on the temporary nature of this world – that life is merely about survival and immediate physical needs and self-gratification. It is a life in which spirituality and the notion of an eternal legacy have no place. So complete is Esau’s obsession with the material world and its demands, says the Sforno, that he is unable even to properly identify the food as lentil soup – he refers to it crudely as “this red substance”. In fact, the verse says that he takes the name Edom, meaning “red” because of it. The moment is a microcosm of Esau’s entire worldview.
We see that Esau’s response to human mortality is to double down on his physical existence – to devote all his efforts and attach all his aspirations to it, ignoring all spiritual pursuits and objectives. Jacob’s inclination, on the other hand, is to see beyond the limitations of this world; to understand that there is a spiritual reality underpinning all of creation, and to invest everything towards realising his spiritual calling – building a connection to eternity and fulfilling the ultimate spiritual purpose of serving G-d and being G-dly.
Jacob’s worldview is encapsulated in Hillel’s famous statement recorded in Pirkei Avot: “And if not now, when?” (Avot 1:14) Because time on earth is limited, everything we do is invested with a sense of urgency. Rashi connects this statement to another mishna from Pirkei Avot: “This world is like an entrance hall before the world to come; prepare yourself in the entrance hall so that you may enter the banquet hall.” (Avot 4:16)
We are placed in this world with free choice in order to be able to accumulate mitzvot and good deeds, which can only be done here on earth during the limited span of our lives. As another mishna in Pirkei Avot says: “One moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is equal to an entire lifetime in the world to come.”
Olam haba is a world of bliss and perfection and pure reward. But it’s also largely a place of stasis. One cannot do mitzvot in the next world. Mitzvot only have meaning in a world where there is free choice. They can only be performed in the here and now.
In reference to the mishna’s statement of “if not now, when”, Rashi says we should live our entire lives with the same level of intensity as a Friday, erev Shabbos. On Friday, we try and finish all our work, and utilise every moment; every second is precious as the clock ticks towards the cut-off time, and when Shabbos comes in there is no more work to be done – whatever we don’t finish remains unfinished. Says the mishna, our lives should be lived at the same pitch, with the same sense of urgency. Because whatever we don’t get done while we are alive remains undone; we cannot finish it when we go to the next world.
Once the sun sets on this life, there are no more mitzvot, and the opportunity to do spiritual work comes to an abrupt end – in much the same way that once the sun dips below the horizon on Friday, there’s no more physical work we can do. The sense of urgency should be the same. If there’s something we still need to do, we need to do it now. For if not now, when?
The good we do and the mitzvot we perform are all we take with us to the next world. This is what we need to busy ourselves with during the short time we have on this earth. Every minute we spend here not doing so is a minute we can’t get back. We can do mitzvot on another day, but there’s no making up what we left behind.
We see that life in this world is precious because it is limited. Jacob realised this, whereas Esau’s response to finite existence is purely hedonistic.
Rav Ovadia Bartenura views: “If not now, when?” through a slightly different lens. Each stage of life comes with its unique opportunities and challenges. We need to seize the opportunities and embrace the challenges of the stage we are in at any given moment, and not wait until the next. The Bartenura emphasises the uncertainties of life – who knows what the future holds? Esau, himself, recognised how fraught and uncertain physical existence is – but his response was to focus on the physical, on the bowl of lentil soup. Hillel, on the other hand, is urging us to focus on mitzvot, on our moral and spiritual strivings, because these are the only means to eternal merit and G-d-given reward.
For Rabbeinu BeChaya: “If not now, when?” is emphasising that as we age, our strength weakens, diminishing our ability to realise our potential. The sooner we seize the opportunity to accomplish good deeds and put our lives on the right trajectory, the better.
Rabbeinu Yona and the Rambam explain that the challenges of ageing are also psychological. The older we get, the more inflexible we become. We get stuck in our ways and lack the motivation and desire to change. We need to set ourselves on the right path from a young age, so by the time we get old, we have the benefit of well-worn tracks to work with; we need only continue the journey rather than having to re-route our entire existence.
At the same time, ageing has its advantages. At a later stage in life, one may have more wisdom, maturity and strength of character to take on certain challenges one would not have managed in earlier years. Each stage of life presents its own unique set of opportunities that must be seized. With this mindset, every challenge is embraced as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
In summary, there are two approaches to life, stemming from its limited timeframe. Esau’s approach is to seize every opportunity for physical indulgence and material pursuits. Jacob’s is to use this life as a platform to reach up and connect with eternity, to utilise mortality itself as a means to immortality. Ultimately, it was Jacob who continued the legacy of Abraham and Isaac, a legacy that extends to this very day, and connects us to eternity.