Eisav returns from the field exhausted and hungry. In a moment of vulnerability, he encounters his brother Yaakov, who seizes the opportunity to negotiate for the rights of Eisav’s birthright. Eisav, driven by immediate physical needs, makes a hasty decision, exchanging his birthright for a bowl of lentils. As Yaakov is one of our forefathers, let us analyze this exchange to understand whether Yaakov is taking advantage of someone in a vulnerable state and is wrong, or is simply finding opportunity in a given situation.
We do understand that taking advantage of someone in a vulnerable situation is an ethical dilemma, not a legal one, as if it was a legal issue, we couldn’t even start to discuss the question. But as this is an ethical issue, let us understand what is ethically wrong and ethically acceptable and even ethically right (yes, I am not an ethicist, but I sometimes use common sense). To demonstrate examples of opposite spectrums of ethical behaviors, hiking a life-saving single patent-protected drug for no other reason other than to make more money, and in the process, having people indirectly die because they can’t afford the drug is clearly wrong. On the other hand, selling drinks at a movie theater for a large markup may be not fun for the wallet to purchase, but nobody will complain that its unethical, as expensive drinks at movie theaters is something understood well ahead of time, it’s an industry-standard practice factored into the global business model of movie theaters, doesn’t negatively affect people’s health (maybe the opposite) and is not regarded by the world at unethical.
Now to take a deeper look at the story of Yaakov and Eisav, let us understand the details of the story directly from the words of the psukim. Yaakov says, “sell me as of this day your birthright”, to which Rashi comments from Targum that the “sell me as of this day” means that just like the day is clear, Yaakov is telling Eisav to create the optics of this sale as clear as day. This means that Eisav clearly understood what he was selling. The pasuk continues that Eisav replies, “I am going to die, so why do I need this birthright”, further demonstrating his understanding that he is selling his rights to his birthright, as he calls out the birthright by name. Eisav’s attitude also shows how unvaluable his birthright is to him. Continuing onward, in lieu of a contract, Yaakov makes Eisav swear on the details of this agreement of his own free will, which he does. Post-swearing, Yaakov provides his side of the agreement, which Eisav accepts and eats. Once finished with his lentils, Eisav leaves without a word of complaint about giving his firstborn rights away. If anything, even the opposite, as the chapter ends with stating that Eisav “despised the birthright” (see Rashi on this pasuk, which states that the Torah emphasizes Eisav’s wickedness in that he despised service to God).
In summary, we see a clean sale where both parties understood the details of what they were getting and giving up on and both believed, with all the known facts at the time, that they were getting the better side of the deal. In addition, it was an agreement carried out to completion, including successful product delivery, and from looking at the facts, nobody was taking advantage of anybody or dealing in any bad faith. From my perspective of this story, I see all the ethical parameters of a clean sale and if Eisav didn’t have buyers’ remorse (as we see later in the Parsha), this story would have been long closed.
But what about when the ethical choices in life aren’t as clear as this one? For example, what about hidden charges and fees? Selling masks for double the price during Corona? Selling a slightly defective product but the “client is paying anyway”? Offering a paid service for something that people could get for free if they google it? Using someone (unknowingly to them) as a stalking horse? Disclosing self-interest or kickbacks when there is no loss to the other party and the other party is getting a superior service? When there is a “click here if you understood and read all the terms and conditions,” and you obviously didn’t read every word of the terms of service? Using a VPN to log onto your IP address in a different country to get a cheaper Netflix subscription? Corporate responsibility versus personal business interests? Personal liberties versus public security? The list never ends, and I don’t have the answers, as many of these are case specific. But what I do have is the understanding that these questions must be constantly discussed, analyzed, and rediscussed internally and with those who have, first and foremost, your best interests in mind.
As we continue the journey of life, our ethical standards must grow with us. On the most basic level, living with an ethical compass is the only way to be successful. Not only for selfish business reasons (others see your ethical behavior and want to do more business and build a better relationship with you) but when you are older and looking back on life, you want to look back and be proud of your behavior. It’s easy to cut ethical corners, especially when nobody is watching. It’s undeniability difficult to stay ethical, especially in a world filled with many people doing unethical things, but boy, in hindsight, it’s super worth it. May we find the strength to do the right thing, and in 50 years be sitting on a rocking chair with pleasant memories of leading a life, led by correct decisions, because you used your powerful ethical compass.