Parshah Toldot: Hunger

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Hunger is a ferocious saboteur. Physical or emotional, hunger can push us to abandon our goals, crack our moral compasses, and lose sight of what truly matters. Our tradition posits two hungry forces within us, sometimes in conflict and intended to work together. The yetzer hara is our drive towards comfort, pleasure, and security, while the yetzer hatov is our ethical conscience ensuring we remain on a righteous path. The yetzer hara is necessary. Such a drive moves us towards love, career advancement, and business success. It can even spur us towards the pursuit of justice and the defense of human rights. Yet if unchecked by the yetzer hatov, the yetzer hara may lure us into behavior destructive to ourselves and others.

We commit to a healthier lifestyle and plan for a meal of grilled chicken, steamed vegetables and fluffy basmati rice. But then we fall into an argument with a sibling, skip lunch to attend an impromptu meeting, and are trapped by traffic gridlock on the way home. By the time we step into the kitchen, the open bag of Doritos is too much to resist and our plans for dinner are tossed out the door. So strikes the yetzer hara.

Or, we’re deeply committed to a partner. In love, willing to sacrifice and compromise, and planning for a beautiful future for which we’re so willing to fight. Everything seems settled into perfect place. But then there’s some drama, and life takes a sharp detour, and we’re face-to-face with someone else willing to fall with us away from such commitments. Suddenly, we’ve made an irretrievable trade for momentary pleasure. The yetzer hara triumphs again.

In this week’s parshah, the yetzer hara exerts a strong influence. Esau has his own Doritos versus chicken dinner moment when he returns from hunting, desperately hungry. His brother Jacob, with whom he’s struggled since they shared a womb, has prepared an apparently irresistible lentil stew. “And Esau said to Jacob, ‘Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished’ – which is why he was named Edom. Jacob said, ‘First sell me your birthright.’ And Esau said, ‘I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?’ But Jacob said, ‘Swear to me first.’ So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn his birthright” (Genesis 25:30-34).

Esau traded momentary comfort, even pleasure, for his inheritance and future privilege. After a day in the fields he was certainly quite tired and also very hungry, but he did not literally hover on the verge of death. The agreement he made was simply less challenging than exerting patience while he prepared his own meal. He chose what was easy rather than what was most worthwhile. And worse, his brother exploited such a weakness for personal gain.

The yetzer hara lives within us all and hunger demanding sustenance comes in many forms. It may foster small indiscretions or gargantuan moral pitfalls. It requires constant awareness to combat, and patience with ourselves when we lose the struggle. Allowing the yetzer hara to dominate is part of our very flawed and very meaningful human experience. Finding balance with the yetzer hatov is an integral step on the path, as well. The story of Esau and Jacob is one in which both forces play prominent roles. Our Torah reminds us none are exempt from such challenges, and stumbling is inevitable.

Akiva Yael is an enthusiastic participant in all that is holy, including Torah study, powerlifting, and the beauty of our world.

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