Vanity of Vanities: Material Life Compared to Spiritual Life
It is written, “Isaac expired and died…and Esau and Jacob his sons buried him” (Genesis 35:29). However in the description of Esau’s descendants that is given in the next chapter, we are told: “Esau took his wives and his sons…and all his property that he acquired in the land of Canaan and went to a land because of his brother Jacob. For their possessions were too great to dwell together, and the land of their sojourns could not support them because of their livestock” (ibid. 36:6-7).
Commenting on the last verse, Rashi gives three reasons for Esau’s departure: The first is that the land could not provide enough pasture for their animals. Rashi cites a second reason from the Midrash (Bereshith Rabba 82:13), which interprets the expression “because of his brother Jacob” (Genesis 36:6) as meaning: Because of the obligation of the decree “that your offspring will be strangers” (Genesis 15:13). Although this decree was placed upon Isaac’s descendants, Esau thought he could escape it: “By leaving this place, I will have neither a share in the gift – for the land was given to him – nor in the fulfillment of the decree.” From the same Midrash, Rashi cites a third reason for Esau’s departure: He was ashamed of having sold his birthright.
This seems difficult to understand. The verse explicitly tells us why Esau departed: “The land of their sojourns could not support them because of their livestock.” It is therefore obvious that only Rashi’s first reason is valid. Thus how could two more reasons (avoiding the decree and feeling shame) be forwarded to explain his departure? The verse explicitly gives us the first reason, not the others, which are completely new. We must therefore find the Sages’ two additional reasons hidden somewhere in the text.
Let us try and explain. After Isaac’s death, Esau began to feel tremendous fear about remaining in Canaan, he and all his family. As we know, Esau believed very strongly in the prophecies of his holy ancestors, and he knew that if he wanted to receive the Torah and merit the land of Canaan as well, he would have to undergo many harsh trials. This is because, as we well know, the land of Israel and the Torah are acquired only through trials (Berachot 5a). However since Esau always fled from hardship and tried to acquire things the easy way, such as by theft and murder, he had no desire for such a gift, one acquired only through hardships. Because Esau wanted a free gift, he left the land to his brother Jacob, who accepted trails with love.
Let us say that these three explanations are mutually dependant. Esau was perfectly aware that everyone knew he had sold his birthright to Jacob. Nevertheless, he had the audacity to walk at the head of the funeral procession for their father Isaac, as it is written: “Esau and Jacob his sons buried him” (Genesis 35:29). This is the exact opposite of what happened between Ishmael and Isaac during Abraham’s burial (ibid. 25:9), for Ishmael had repented (Bava Batra 16b; Bereshith Rabba 30:4) and bowed his head before Isaac as he let him pass ahead. Thus Esau’s shame was revealed in public. If he continued to believe that he was the firstborn and that the land of Canaan was rightfully his, then Esau would have to repay the debt to his brother. He would also have to go into exile, both he and his descendants, instead of Jacob and his. However Esau did not want all this, which is why he left the land under the pretext that it could not support their livestock and that he had to look elsewhere. In reality, the wicked Esau thereby demonstrated that the land did not belong to him in any way, and that it rightfully belonged to Jacob and his children alone. This is because they studied Torah, and a consequence to studying Hashem’s Torah is that the Holy Land – the land of Israel – also belonged to the Children of Israel.
If we are correct in this regard, then the two reasons cited by the Midrash are alluded to in Genesis 36:6. The first part of the verse, “For their possessions were too great to dwell together,” signified that there was not enough pasture for their animals, which is what Esau claimed. The second part of the verse, “The land of their sojourns could not support them because of their livestock,” relates to the first reason given by the Midrash, for one of the brothers was a resident of the land while the other was a sojourner there, having to leave for exile and pay the debt against him. This was due to their mikneh (livestock) – consisting of the kinyan (transaction) between Jacob and Esau – meaning the birthright that Jacob purchased from his brother Esau.
However it is certain that Esau’s claim (wherein he was leaving the land because there was not enough pasture for his animals) was not accepted, for there is no reason to leave the land of Israel. Thus Esau’s shame was revealed in public, since everyone then knew that he left because he had the gall of wanting to remain the firstborn and because he had sold his birthright to Jacob. In other words, he left “because of his brother Jacob,” for he did not want a gift that comprised hardships. The one who was truly the firstborn, and who wanted to acquire the Torah and the land of Israel by hardships, would inherit the land.
The Torah states, “If you walk in My statutes” (Leviticus 26:3), which the Sages have said refers to toiling in the study of Torah (Torat Kohanim 26:2). A person must realize that the Torah is only acquired through hard work, by hardship and with difficulty. This is in order for him to feel that he is acting in this way solely because he loves his Creator, as it is written: “Because for Your sake we are killed all day long” (Psalms 44:23).
If we act in this way, then the end of the passage will also be fulfilled: “You shall dwell in safety in your land” (Leviticus 26:5), meaning we will receive the land of Israel. However if we only want to benefit from a free gift, from mitzvot all prepared, then this will not last. Persistent and laborious effort in Torah study can only be achieved when a person devotes himself totally and exclusively to the Torah, not when he devotes himself entirely to increasing his wealth.
Jacob conquered this path for all his descendants after him. If we want to benefit from a mitzvah, we must endure many trials of love in an unselfish way. The proof is that Jacob gave all his possessions to acquire a tomb in the cave of Machpelah. He put a large pile of gold and silver before Esau and said, “My brother, do you prefer the portion that is yours in this cave, or all this gold and silver?” (Shemot Rabba 31:17).
Jacob was prepared to endure hardships uniquely to inherit the land and to acquire mitzvot, for the land of Israel belongs solely to the Children of Israel. We learn a great lesson from this, which is that only a person who devotes himself to the Torah in the land of Israel has a portion in the Holy Land.