By Rabbi Dr. Tal Sessler
The topic of last week’s parsha was Jacob and Esau. Jacob and Esau represent many things: body and soul, Judaism and paganism, spirit and matter.
Jacob asks Esau if he is interested in selling his spiritual legacy (birthright) for the sensuous pleasures of the flesh (tasty food). Esau’s response is basically as follows: “Look, I am going to die one day anyway, so why should I care about a spiritual legacy?” (Genesis 25:32).
Esau’s approach to life is known as hedonism. It is an approach which crowns bodily pleasures as the greatest and most desirable goal in life. Because we are all mortal and ephemeral, as Esau implies, we might as well opt for immediate satisfaction and instant gratification. This is an approach which the prophet, Isaiah, depicts as: “Eat and drink, because tomorrow we will die” (Isaiah 22:13).
Jacob’s approach to life, the Jewish approach, is different. In Judaism, we don’t worship the body’s cravings, nor do we denigrate them. In Judaism, the body is seen as a vessel, an indispensable and vital tool to maintain and enhance our physical and spiritual well-being.
Like Esau, Jacob enjoys physical pleasures. But Jacob, as befitting a Jew, always contextualizes these pleasures within a spiritual framework. In Judaism, delicious meals are enjoyed as entire families and friends congregate around the Shabbat table. Wine and alcohol kick off any Jewish celebration from Shabbat and Yom Tov to a wedding or a circumcision. Physical intimacy between individuals committed to each other in meaningful and soulful relationships is a mitzvah.
The body and its pleasures are good, teaches us the Torah. Just use them in a way which gives you more vitality and joy in the long run, rather than by frantically seeking instant gratification, which leaves us quickly with nothing but a numbing void. Judaism is not about self-deprivation, it is about self-elevation. May we have the merit to achieve it.