A satiated person cannot understand the hungry person. This basic truth is expressed in the proverbs of many cultures (this gender-neutral version is of Irish extraction), and is the key to understanding Parashat Toldot. Hunger is the dominant emotion, and it does bad things to the judgment of the key characters. Famished Esau sells his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew; a verse later in 26:1, hungry Isaac prepares to abandon the land, provoking a divine warning not to leave. Later in life, Isaac’s hunger sets the whole misplaced blessing drama in place, and the texts of both blessings given by Isaac begin with “the fat of the land” (משמני הארץ)—acknowledgement that without food, no other blessing is worthwhile.
I am surprised that the Midrash and commentaries do not pick up on the juxtaposition of Esau’s hunger at the end of chapter 25 and Isaac’s hunger at the start of 26. Chapter 26 is often seen as filler—a collection of Isaac traditions that allow enough time to pass for the drama of the two brothers to develop into an explosion at the end. But still it seems important that Esau is depicted as selling his birthright out of hunger, and that Isaac is prepared to do much the same thing—to abandon his land as soon as he experiences famine. Continue reading