Sunday, November 04, 2007

Parshat Toledot 2

“G-d formed from the earth every beast of the field and every bird of the sky and brought them to Adam to see what he would call each one; and whatever Adam called each living creature, that remained its name” (Genesis 2: 19). We see from here the importance of names. A person’s Hebrew name is not mere coincidence, but is has an influence over their character traits, and shows us the potential within that person. The Hebrew word for “name” is Shem, which is related to the word Sham meaning “there”. How much more important to understanding the character of a person is a name given in the Torah, where every word has many layers of hidden meaning.

Esav (Esau) is born at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading. But his name appears to be a description of what he looked like as a baby, rather than a key to understanding his personality. “The first one emerged red, entirely like a hairy mantle; so they called him Esav” (ibid. 25; 25). Rashi explains that the word Esav is from the word Assui (made), because when Esav emerged from the womb he was covered in hair like an adult. This seems a strange reason for a name. All babies when they are born look like either aliens or Winston Churchill, yet very few are named E.T. or Winston.

Equally perplexing is the other name which Esav receives later in life, Edom (Red). This name is not a consequence of his ruddy appearance, but rather because he sold his birthright for a pot of red stew (ibid. 30). Why is the colour of Esav’s lunch the most appropriate description of who he really is?

The fact that Esav was born “fully made” gives us an insight into his attitude to the world. Adam and Eve were created after everything else was already formed, in order that they should enter into a “made” world, where they would not lack for anything. They had the potential to take the finished world, and elevate to a higher plane through their actions. However, through sinning, they plunged the world into imperfection, and forced their descendants to have to work to survive.

Similarly Esav was given everything when he was born. He was complete, and should have used that perfection as a building base to strive for even greater spiritual heights. To do this he needed to appreciate the world into which he was born, and recognise his debt of gratitude to G-d. However when he returns home exhausted, he tells Ya’akov that he doesn’t even want to know what he is eating “Pour into me now some of that red stuff”. He doesn't want to eat and enjoy the food, but just to have it poured into him. And the only thing he sees in the food is its colour.

Instead of perceiving the physical world as a tool to reach spiritual perfection, he thinks that this world is the totality of reality. He sees no use for the birthright, because he is finite, “I am going to die”. Therefore he is labelled with the derogatory name “Edom”, which not only means red, but is also related to Adam, the first man who also spurned the gifts that G-d had given him in this world.
Just as Adam forfeited his right to remain in the Garden of Eden, so too Esav gave up his birthright, the heritage of Avraham and Yitzchak. In place of the quest for spiritual perfection Esav sees only the material finite world, and despairs. However, by spurning the birthright he also gives up his share in the world to come, in the unbounded paradise that remains stored away for the righteous. He only sees only the physicality of the world, and that he is going to die, but ignores the spiritual elements of life, and the future rewards that they can bring.

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