A Jewish Teaching on Esau’s Birthright and Climate Action

On November 15, 2015, Board Member Susan Frant offered the following d’var (sermon) at a board meeting of Congregation Beth David in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania. The Torah portion for that week was Toldot, Genesis 25:19-28:9. In Susan’s teaching, she focuses on Genesis 25:27-34, which centers on Esau spurning his birthright. How does this relate to climate disruption and our need to act? Read on to find out.

Beth David logoWhen Isaac’s twins grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man, who stayed in camp. Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. Many translate this as “tired” or “exhausted,” not “famished.” And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am” tired. Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” So he sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; and he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright. (Genesis 25:27-34)

Certainly there were benefits associated with the birthright, but there were also responsibilities. From Rashi we learn that Esau’s exhaustion is more spiritual than physical. He is tired of the obligations of family life, tired of the responsibilities associated with Jewish living, and weary of the limitations placed on him daily by his pledge to the future. Would it not be easier simply to ignore tomorrow and live only for today? And so, with the stew as collateral, Esau abandons his future.

Many commentaries point out that Torah admonishes us not to live exclusively for the moment lest we forget that tomorrow will bring new challenges and new blessings. The Torah portion Toldot highlights the struggle between this instant and the thousands of tomorrows that follow.

I relate this Torah portion to the very serious issue of climate disruption where birthright is a sustainable, livable—that is, inhabitable, G-d given planet. Related to this we could talk about farmers who allow fracking to “save the farm” when fracking leads to contaminated water and earthquakes. We could cite drivers who buy gas guzzling vehicles when driving them leads to an increase in greenhouse gasses that contributes to climate disruption. We could point to eating red meat where it was reported in 2012, that the world’s 1.5 billion cattle contributed nearly 18% of all greenhouse gases, more than cars, planes and all other transportation put together. We could talk about powering our digital, electronic world with fossil fuels where wind and solar power do not emit greenhouse gasses and therefore, the total cost to humankind is much less than burning fossil fuel.  We could go on. But I won’t.

Rather, let me conclude by asking you to raise your hand if you believe you are a contributing member of the society. Look around. We are the people that are referred to in the statement that says: we are the FIRST generations to witness and feel the effects of climate disruption AND the LAST generations to be able to take actions that will have a significant impact on mitigating the magnitude of what is to come. Let me repeat: the first to witness the effects and the last to be able to take significant action.

I hope when our children or grandchildren ask what we did to change the trajectory of global climate disruption, to preserve their birthright of a sustainable, livable, beautiful G-d given world, I hope our answer doesn’t include that we were busy eating stew!   Thank you.

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Things to read and to watch:

This Changes Everything* by Naomi Klein

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Colbert

Merchants of Doubt* by Eric M Conway and Naomi Oreskes

Laudato Si by Pope Francis**

*also a movie

**on YouTube