This week, a young marketing executive named Evan Perlmutter took to eBay with a modest proposal: He will sell his fandom of the New York Knicks for $1,973, the symbolic sum representing the last year the tragic bunch from Madison Square Garden won a championship. A dude from California bid $3,500, and with the stroke of a button Perlmutter—his childhood bedroom still adorned with posters of Patrick Ewing—transferred his allegiance to the Los Angeles Lakers.
In the graceful and understated style that has so endeared the team to its fans, the Knicks told Perlmutter precisely what he could go do with his money, assuring him—and anyone else who would listen—that New York’s best still had millions of devoted supporters who would never abandon ship.
As always, they were missing the point.
Perlmutter’s decision to jilt the Knicks in such a dramatic fashion resonated with fellow fans and sports writers alike not only because it was wonderfully theatrical, but because it contained elements of a more ancient, and more profound, story. A disgruntled man, abandoning his birthright for a mess of pottage—we’ve heard that one before: Evan is a modern-day Esau.
Perhaps the Bible’s most undervalued hero, that tired hunter, starved after a day of stalking his prey, returns home. There, his brother, Jacob, the bookish one, sells him a meager dinner, a simple bean stew, in return for Esau’s rights as father Isaac’s firstborn. No wonder that Lord Byron had his fun with the hapless hairy hunter: “Thou sold’st thy birthright, Esau! for a mess,” he wrote, “Thou shouldst have gotten more, or eaten less.” To add insult to injury, the cunning Jacob soon tricks his sibling once more, dressing up as Esau and kneeling under the blind Isaac’s hand for one last blessing.
Why tell us this story? Jacob, after all, is the one who will soon wrestle with the angel, acquire the name Israel, and emerge as the last great patriarch of our nation. Why introduce us to him under such slimy circumstances? Does the Torah expect us to revel in his cleverness? Are we instructed to follow his example and think up ways to screw our siblings as well?
There’s a better answer, and it lies with the simple explanation that the real protagonist of the story is Esau. Fooled, wronged, and deprived of his rights, condemned to forever live by the sword, he nevertheless finds it in his heart to turn around and forgive his treacherous brother. Jacob is the sort of person most us can never be: brilliant, radiant, and ruthless, possessed of an unshakable will and the steely understanding that the founding of nations and peoples often depends on violence, deceit, and other unbecoming acts. Esau is the sort of person most of us are: tired after a long day of work, vulnerable to imperfect family dynamics, quick to anger but eager to reconcile. He, like us, is human, and it is for his flaws, not despite of them, that we’re supposed to admire him.
Let us admire Evan Perlmutter, too, and for the same reasons. Having abandoned, as most of us have, our unflinching dedication to the dictates of our religion, and having loosened the ties that bind us to pretty much anything else, from nation to family, our sports teams remain as the last totems of our vestigial tribalism. We may declare ourselves as citizens of the world, cosmopolitans through and through, in every area of our personal and professional lives, but even the most unattached among us may still nurse a bright and irrational love for the Eagles or the Red Sox or the Cavs. Sports fandom is where we go to remind ourselves that as sophisticated and modern as we may think we are, we really haven’t progressed much since the days of Jacob and Esau, that we’re still hunters and gatherers bound by the tight and maddening ties that bind us to our families and our tribes, that we’re still vying for primacy in a wonderfully primitive and profoundly essential way.
Like Esau, Evan was tired. He had suffered long years of humiliation at the hands of a cavalier team run by what is unarguably the most spectacularly incompetent, malicious, and disrespectful organization in all of professional sports. He tried telling himself that the Knicks were his birthright, something powerful and primordial you can neither abandon nor trade. If he ever expressed his frustrations to his fellow fans, he was probably treated to some variation on, “what can you do, we’re stuck with these guys forever because we’re Knicks fans and that’s just who we are.”
But Evan knew better. He knew, like Esau, that he was human, and as such free to reject everything that made no sense to him, even the inscrutable forces that seemed to determine his life from the moment of his birth. And so, in a moment of clarity, he went online and solicited his own mess of pottage. He shook off his heritage, the ultimate privilege of the truly free man.
You can deny his action all you want. You can, as the Knicks did, decry him as nothing more than a seeker of a little free publicity, or call him rude names. But it is in stories like Evan’s—and Esau’s—that we find some of the thorniest challenges to the balance we must all strike between our elected affinities on the one hand and our collective obligations on the other. Examined on the grand stage of politics, war, and peace, these questions are often distorted by the stature of the occasion. Studied in miniature, as no more than a story of one fan and his disappointments, it teaches us the same lessons Esau has been expounding for millennia, the lessons of being all too human.
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