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“And Ya’akov said, ‘Swear to me this day;’ and he swore to him; and he sold his birthright to Ya’akov” (Bereishis 25:33).
How can one sell his birthright? What in the world does that mean and exactly how does it work? It seems to us that it is an inalienable fact that the one who is born first is the bechor (the firstborn), with all that it entails. It doesn’t seem logical that bechorah (primogeniture) is an item which can be bought and sold. What did Ya’akov have in mind and what was Esav thinking?
Another thing is strange. After Esav agreed to sell his birthright for the price that Ya’akov demanded, how did he have the audacity to stand before his father and say, “I am your son, your firstborn, Esav” (Ibid. 27:32)? He himself admitted, only a few sentences later, “He took away my birthright, and, behold, now he has taken away my blessing” (Ibid. 36).
The answer to both questions can be found in the Midrash. “He (Esav) brought a group of criminals in with him and said to them, ‘Let’s eat his food and laugh at him.’ But the Holy Spirit responded, ‘Prepare the table, lay out the carpet, eat, drink; arise, you princes, and anoint the shield’ (Yesha’ayahu 21:5). ‘Prepare the table’ – arrange the bread. ‘Lay out the carpet’ – arrange the candelabrum. ‘Arise, you princes’ – this refers to the angels Michael and Gavriel. ‘Anoint the shield’ – write down that the birthright belongs to Ya’akov….and because they were joking, Hashem agreed and joked along with them and validated the birthright to Ya’akov as it says, ‘So says Hashem, “My firstborn son is Israel (Shemos 4:22)”’” (Midrash Rabbah, Bereishis, 63:14).
The Midrash reveals to us Esav’s real intentions. He too believed that bechorah is an intangible item which cannot be sold. He intended to take advantage of his brother’s naivet?, eat his food and then laugh at the fool who thought he could buy the Brooklyn Bridge. Therefore, even after the deal was consummated, he told his father that he was his firstborn son and deserves to receive his blessings. Esav wasn’t lying intentionally. He really thought that there was no validity to their ridiculous agreement, since he wasn’t aware that Hashem had instructed His angels to record the transaction as binding. Only when he saw that Ya’akov had succeeded in receiving their father’s precious blessings did he exclaim, “Is this why he is named Ya’akov? (Rashi explains that the root of the name, in Hebrew, indicates shrewdness) for he has tricked me twice; he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he has taken away my blessing” (Bereishis 27:36). Esav was shocked to realize that apparently Hashem had not considered his stunt a joke at all, but had seriously transferred his privilege to his younger brother. Why did Hashem do this? Because when one does not recognize the value of something Hashem gives him, He takes it away from him.
And this, I imagine, was Ya’akov’s plan. He was far from na?ve. On the contrary, he was very shrewd. He knew how his brother’s mind worked, and he anticipated that he would make sport of the whole idea. And Ya’akov knew that if he could provoke Esav to demonstrate that the bechorah is worthless to him, then Hashem would surely take it away from him and give it to the one who does recognize its value and will take the proper care of it. (This explains, by the way, why we later find that Ya’akov had to buy Esav’s share in the Me’aras Hamachpelah [the burial place of the Patriarchs in Chevron] from him, since only one spot was available for the firstborn son. It would seem to us that once Ya’akov bought the birthright from Esav, he was now the bona fide bechor and, consequently, was automatically entitled to that cherished spot. But now we have seen that there really is no such thing as selling one’s birthright, it was only that Hashem took back the privileges which He had given Esav since he did not appreciate them. This only applies to benefits of stature such as who may work in the Beis Hamikdash and whose children will be the Chosen People. It did not affect monetary considerations such as the inheritance, of which two parts are given to the firstborn, and burial rights in the family burial place. Those remained the possession of the natural firstborn son.)
The lesson of this episode is awesome and it applies to everyone in many situations. The Chofetz Chaim ztvk”l was well in his nineties when he passed away. Yet, Reb Yeruchem Levovitz zt”l, Mashgiach of Yeshivas Mir, eulogized him by saying that if Hashem would know that we appreciate him, He would not have taken him away from us. Only because He realized that we have no need for him, did He bring about his passing.
I remember that when Israel began returning pieces of the Holy Land to the Arabs, on their own, something which was always considered impossible and totally unfeasible, my Rebby shlita, spoke very emotionally and said that if we valued Eretz Yisrael and appreciated it properly and took care of its holiness appropriately, then Hashem would not take it back from us. He then warned that this is only the beginning. Hashem is trying to awaken us to be cognizant of what we have and therefore He only took parts of our Heritage away from us hoping that we will realize its value at least after we have lost it, thus preventing further concessions. But if we still fail to grasp its worth and importance, then, chas veshalom, we could lose it all.
This is something we must internalize. All of us are recipients of bountiful blessings from Hashem, both spiritual and material. But none of them come with life-time guarantees. It is of utmost importance that we learn to appreciate what we have: our parents, our spouses, our children, our jobs, our friends, our rabbis, our chavrusos, our Homeland and everything else that Hashem has granted us. In this way we can hope that Hashem will continue to supply us with His blessings and we will be eternally happy, in this world and the next.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network