By Rabbi Danny Wolfe
There are ten seconds left in the basketball game, and your team is losing 98-99. It’s your ball, and your team is huddled around the coach, trying to figure out the appropriate play. Do you want the ball in your hands, with the game on the line? Or do you want to pass, or be out of the play?
I believe a Jewish approach to this question can be found in this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Toldos.
One afternoon, Esav came home ravenous from a long day hunting in the field. His brother Yaakov was cooking a stew of lentils. Their conversation went as follows:
Esav said, “Pour into me, now, some of that very red stuff, for I am exhausted.”
Yaakov answered, “Sell…your birthright to me.” And Esav said, ”Look, I am going to die, so of what use to me is a birthright?”…Yaakov gave Esav bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, got up and left; thus Esav spurned the birthright.”
Rashi explains that Esav realized that the birthright brought with it very serious obligations, such as performing the korbanos (the sacrificial service in the Temple), which, if done incorrectly, could cause severe punishments or even death. He therefore viewed the entire birthright as a “headache” and was uninterested. Rabbi Shimshon Pincus adds that Esav was basically declaring, “It is better for me to enjoy these lentils today, when I am free of any obligations or admonitions from G-d. Better I not be bound to serving G-d, with all the hardships and difficulties that it entails, even though it does come with great reward.”
We live in a world of shortcuts. With the advent of the smartphone, we can do everything we might possibly need to do from our phones. Nowadays on the Android you don’t even have to lift your finger from the screen; you can swipe from letter to letter and it figures out what you are trying to say. If you want to look up information about the Malaysian Tapir, you need not go to the library as in the days of old. You simply type 14 letters into your phone, and you have all the information at your fingertips. Nowadays, many of us lack any desire to expend effort on even the most mundane tasks. Similarly, writes the Mesilas Yesharim, we have no interest in working harder to achieve higher levels of service of G-d. It’s sufficient for us that we are average people. As long as we don’t commit any egregious, heinous aveiros (sins) we feel like we are doing our part.
This fundamental lack of desire to put in effort to achieve closeness to G-d was Esav’s fatal shortcoming, and it is this aspect of Esav from which we must distance ourselves. He declared that it was better for him to just “chill” and eat some lentils than it was for him to toil in the service of G-d, a task that indeed requires tremendous effort. The crucial lesson for all of us, in this luxurious, affluent, comfortable world that we live in, is that as tempting as it might be to take shortcuts, true fulfillment, spiritually, as well as all areas of our life, will be achieved through tremendous effort.
In the game of life, we are not passive bystanders; we are active, involved players that will determine the outcome. We embrace responsibility; we crave it. With the game on the line, we want the ball in our hands.
Photo credit: Håkan Dahlström Photography