If we want to live a life that is inspired and righteous, we have to believe in ourselves and our own importance. We have to believe that we are so precious in the eyes of G-d that he would have created the entire universe just for us.
How do you assess a person? How do you come to truly know them? And how do you assess yourself? An interesting phrase in Proverbs, written by King Solomon with Divine prophecy, says to judge a person “according to their praise”. One way of understanding the verse is if you want to know about a person, see what others say in their praise.
Rabbeinu Yona offers a different way of understanding the verse, which reveals a very profound idea. “A person – according to their praise” means, what do they praise? In other words, what do they value? If you know that about a person, then you know everything there is to know about them because you know what their values are.
To make this real and practical, let’s look at something that happens in this week’s parsha, Toldot. It describes the negotiations that take place between two brothers, Jacob and Esau, around the issue of the right of the firstborn. It was really about the question of who would bear the legacy of Abraham and Isaac. Would it be Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or would it be Abraham, Isaac and Esau?
Jacob is preparing a pot of food at the time and Esau asks for the food, so they make an exchange. It’s not simply a sale, it is also a symbolic gesture – it is more important for Esau to have the food than to be considered the spiritual and moral heir of Abraham and Isaac.
The verse says, very significantly: “And Esau disparaged the birthright.” It uses an interesting word, “vayivez”, which is translated as “disparaged”. It is related to a word meaning to treat something with disrespect, with no value. The verse is conveying that Esau saw no value in the birthright. And this gives us a direct insight into who he was. He valued other things: the hunt, conquering the physical world, the power of physical force – as we see later on in the parsha, when his father blesses him: “You shall live by your sword.”
Interestingly, the Baal Haturim says that this word “vayeviz” appears on only two occasions in the whole of Tanach – here, and in the Book of Esther, chapter 3. There it says that Haman disparaged the idea of persecuting only Mordechai. He wanted to persecute the entire Jewish people. The Baal Haturim refers to the Midrash on the Book of Esther, which links Haman and Esau. It says they were both people who ‘disparaged’. In fact, Haman is a descendant of the nation of Amalek, and the nation of Amalek is descended from Esau, so they were connected biologically, but they were also connected philosophically.
Rav Yitzchak Hutner talks about the philosophy of Amalek and says, based on a Midrash, that the essence of their philosophy was to disparage things of importance. He says there are two forces in the world. One is that of Amalek. The other is represented by the Jewish people; it goes to the heart and essence of Jewish values, Torah values, and it is as follows: there are things in this world that are sacred and important and valuable; life is sacred and important and valuable, and how we live our lives is of incredible importance in G-d’s eyes.
Amalek represents the claim that you can do whatever you want to, because there’s nothing sacred. There’s no greatness worth striving for, and how we choose to conduct our lives has no greater significance than what we feel like doing in a particular moment. In contrast, our Torah teaches us that our lives are incredibly important, that G-d cares about how we live and what we do. Living with a sense of the sacredness of our lives and our actions goes to the heart of Torah values.
Rav Hutner takes the idea of assessing a person “according to their praise” one stage deeper. It’s not only the specific values that are important, but the fact that anything is valuable in the first place.
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz refers to an amazing statement from the Mishna, which explains that a person is obliged to say: “The world was created for me.” The context of this Mishna is found in the laws of criminal procedure, where a witness comes to give testimony in a capital case and is directed by the court as to the importance of not perjuring himself and of ethical conduct in the witness box. The witness is instructed to say: “The world was created for me.” The Mishna refers to the fact that during Creation, although all other species of animal and plant life were created en masse, the human was created as a single being, then split into Adam and Eve. Therefore, it was worthwhile for the entire universe to be created just for Adam and Eve.
This impresses upon us the value of human life, not only in terms of the consequence of testimony. Rashi says on the Mishna that the witness should be filled with such a sense of his own personal importance and significance in the eyes of G-d that it inspires him to do the right thing. From this, Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz builds an entire philosophy. He says if we want to live a life that is inspired and righteous, we have to believe in ourselves and our own importance. We have to believe that we are so precious in the eyes of G-d that he would have created the entire universe just for us; that what we do, who we are, what we think really matters to Hashem in the grand sweep of eternity.
That was the ideological struggle between Jacob and Esau. Esau saw no importance in continuing the legacy of Abraham and Isaac, while Jacob understood its value and importance. Later in history, these clashing worldviews were expressed through Amalek and the Jewish people.
As we continue in the proud tradition of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we choose to follow the path that says life is important and the world was created for us, and what we do matters. When we follow that path, we find inspiration, meaning and purpose.