In this week’s parshah we read about the story that we are all familiar with, the sale of the birthright (bechorah) from Eisav to Yaakov Avinu. The Torah tells us that Yaakov Avinu was cooking a lentil stew as Eisav came in from the field exhausted. Eisav notoriously said to Yaakov “pour into me now some of that very red stuff for I am exhausted.” Yaakov Avinu responded, “I will give it to you if you sell me your birthright.” Eisav responded that since regardless he will die soon (from it), of what use is the birthright to him, and he sold it. The Torah tells us that Eisav degraded the birthright (the bechorah).
There is a strong question that many commentators ask concerning this episode. There is a halacha that one may not sell an item for more than one sixth of its price. This is known as Ona’ah. Yes, it is true! If an item retails for $60, a retailer may not sell it for $70 or more. If one does sell an item for above this value, the sale is not valid. The same is true for undervaluing an item. One cannot sell or buy an item that retails for $60 for $50 or less. How then was the sale of the birthright valid? Yaakov Avinu only gave Eisav a pot of beans in exchange for his birthright. Wouldn’t you agree that the birthright is worth far more than a pot of beans? How was this a valid sale?
In answering this question Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, zt”l, the late Rosh Hayeshiva of the Mir yeshiva in Israel, reveals a fundamental principal that pertains to all of the mitzvos that we do. He explains that we cannot imagine the reward that awaits us for doing mitzvos in the world to come. However, the value of all mitzvos and the consequent reward for their performance can be determined by the one who performs them. In other words, a person can set a price for a mitzvah. If we treat the mitzvos with respect, we will be awarded the maximum reward for them. However, if one degrades the mitzvah, it will become worth the value that he set for it.
The Torah tells us that Eisav degraded the bechorah. In his mind it was only worth a pot of beans. Therefore, the sale was indeed not more than one sixth of the price of the birthright since Eisav, who owned it at the time, set its price to be worth just that – a pot of beans.
This fundamental principle can be very crucial when deciding between different options. For example if one has an option to do a certain mitzvah or do something that will yield him a profit of whatever sum of money, (provided we are not talking about his basic income needed to support his family) choosing to recognize that profit can define the value of that particular mitzvah as less than that amount of money.
Rav Shmulevitz concludes that this can only be an issue when one does a mitzvah that only affects oneself. However, when one enables others to do mitzvos and serve Hashem better he receives the maximum reward that was originally intended for a mitzvah. Since he is not the one that is actually performing the mitzvah, he does not set the price, therefore he receives the price that Hashem had originally intended.
May we learn from this parsha how to set our priorities straight and value our mitzvos at the highest assessment possible. May this lead us to greet Mashiach Tzidkenu amen.