Making Sense of Stealing the Birthright

Jacob flat out stole the birthright.

My siblings, parents and I are scattered across the country. We are studying Torah via Zoom videoconference and recently looked at the story of Esau and Jacob. As the youngest of six, I am not a champion of birthright, but by the rules of the game, the story is very clear: Jacob stole the birthright. If you look only at the Torah text, Esau is a sympathetic character. It’s the rabbis over the generations who came up with justifications for Jacob’s actions. I often have wondered why the Torah would teach that our entire legacy traces back to deceit. I would like to share some thoughts that connect the Jacob/Esau story to Hanukkah.

Jacob stole the birthright. We didn’t do it and we have no responsibility for him. So why is this relevant to us? Jacob’s actions set off a course of events that eventually led to becoming slaves in Egypt, being redeemed from slavery, receiving the Torah, establishing a kingdom, and losing everything and being sent into exile – and then against all odds surviving and somehow reestablishing a modern state. Why does what happened all those years ago matter to us today? It is a cautionary tale to remind us as a people that we must be careful about how we act in our world and realize that we aren’t any better than anyone else

This brings us to Hanukkah. The most famous miracle of Hanukkah is that the oil lasted for eight days. Two schools of Jewish thought, Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai, debated whether we should light starting with one candle and increase every day until there are eight, or, start with eight and reduce by one candle until there is one. It seems logical that we should reduce each day. Didn’t the oil decrease by one eighth? Yet our practice is to add a candle each night to symbolize our increasing joy as represented by increased light.

I have always thought that the biggest miracle of Hanukkah was that they lit the menorah at all. They had just faced horrible destruction. The temple was in shambles. Yet they turned away from the physical work and made a spiritual statement by lighting. God then joined the people and made the oil last the eight days it took to make new oil for the menorah.

Jacob used cunning and guile to steal the birthright. We can’t change that. What we can do is remember that we are no better than anyone else and that we have a responsibility to be candle lighters for others in times of darkness. Our charge is to be a light unto the nations. I believe that miracles happen when people take action to work in partnership with God. May our joy, and the joy for all, only increase as we light our candles during Hanukkah. May we use this inspiration to take action to spread light throughout the year.

Categories: Director, Dvar Torah