The show, Pawn Stars, is a runaway hit on the History Channel. It tells the story of three generations of the Harrison family and their Las Vegas pawnshop. There's Richard, the patriarch (affectionately known as the "old man"); Rick, the son (who really runs the business); and Rick's adult son, Corey (who wants to become a tough businessman like his father and grandfather).
The setup is simple: Every customer who walks through the door, intending to pawn or sell some family heirloom, has a tale. Sometimes the item is worthless, other times priceless. Rick can always tell the difference.
When he does pronounce that the medieval knight's helmet is really a 19th-century reproduction, the item's owner must make a choice: Sell it for less than the asking price or call the whole deal off. Often, customers call off the deal because the item's sentimental value has just exceeded its actual value.
Online auction and classified advertising sites such as eBay and craigslist are full of personal items for sale by owners who may feel anguish—and even great pain—about letting go. We've all known people who've had to sell a beloved home they could no longer afford at a steep loss because it was worth less than the price than they had paid for it. Ads to sell gold for cash are everywhere. Pawnshops continue to stay in business. Everything seems to be negotiable.
This week's Torah portion, Tol'dot, features Esau selling his birthright for a song, without even considering its real or sentimental value. Here, the Torah presents Esau as a man who acts quickly, believing himself to be in desperate circumstances (Genesis 25:29-34).
A question for us: Are there some things you'd never sell, under any circumstances? If your situation became so difficult that you were between rock bottom and a very hard decision, what would you hold onto no matter what, regardless of the cost?
Selling material things is one thing, but sometimes more than tangible items are put up for sale. Selling our children, for example, is an abomination; and yet that happens around the world. In many places, the sex trade sells people, many of them children, into slavery on a daily basis.
Some things just should never be for sale. Integrity, for example, or freedom or love should never have a price tag, and neither should one's body.
In ancient cultures, the birthright was the special privilege given to the firstborn male of any patriarch. At his father's death, the eldest son received a "double portion" of the inheritance—double what his brothers would get.1 This inheritance wasn't just economic, however; it was also about leadership. Having the birthright meant exercising leadership over the family, replacing the father as the patriarch. The holder of the birthright ruled over his brothers, and the family line would be continued through him. In short, the birthright was designed to ensure the future of the family.
The story of Jacob and Esau reminds us that some things should just never be for sale and that one impulsive decision, made amid an anxious circumstance, can have devastating ramifications for the future. There are lots of examples of how this story gets repeated throughout history and in our own communities:
The businessperson who compromises her integrity by pocketing huge profits at the expense of fair wages and treatment of the company's employees.
The respected leader who sells away his career and family for the momentary pleasure of an affair.
The teenager who wrecks his or her future by abusing drugs just because "everyone else is doing it."
The driver who forgoes common sense by taking the wheel after an evening of drinking and winds up taking a life in a car crash.
There is always a reason for our selling out. The question is whether we are thinking clearly. The ultimate question is this: What determines the value of what is on the table? Do we allow God to determine our value or do we let anxiety drive what we feel we need? Have we sold ourselves to the God who created us, cares for us, and gives us what we need? Or are we still willing to sell ourselves so cheaply to things that don't matter, and are we prepared to pray the ultimate price?
In ancient China, the people wanted security against the barbaric hordes to the north, so they built the Great Wall. It was so high they believed no one could climb over it and so they thought nothing could break it down. They settled back to enjoy their security. During the first hundred years of the wall's existence, China was invaded three times. Not once did the barbaric hordes break down the wall or climb over it. Each time, they bribed a gatekeeper and then marched right through the gates. The people were so busy relying on walls of stone they forgot to teach integrity to their children.2
What is worth preserving for ourselves and our children, no matter the price?
See W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Rev. Ed. (New York: URJ Press, 2005, ) p. 183
See John C. Maxwell, Developing the Leader Within You (Nashville: Thomas Nelson), p. 42
Rabbi Edwin C. Goldberg is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago, IL. He is the coordinating editor of the new High Holiday prayer book, Mishkan HaNefesh (CCAR). He has a doctorate in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and has published five books, most recently Love Tales from the Talmud (URJ Press) and Saying No and Letting Go: Jewish Wisdom on Making Room for What Matters Most (Jewish Lights).
Not long ago, I heard Robert Krulwich of the podcast Radiolab1 reflect on his experiences at two different ancient temples—one in Kyoto and one in Athens. In Kyoto, he walked into an ancient and beautiful temple whose interior had been lovingly restored many times over the centuries. In Athens, he stood in the Parthenon on the same ground where Pericles once stood, yet the building itself stands in ruins. As I ponder the question that Rabbi Goldberg poses, I hope that we continue to teach succeeding generations how to preserve Judaism, not for its historic significance, but for its ever rejuvenating, life-nourishing wisdom
Rabbi Goldberg asks: What is worth preserving for ourselves and our children, no matter the price? This question must be answered and acted upon time and again in the life of a community, a family, and an individual. In some ways, we see our patriarch Isaac trying to do this later in our parashah: "Isaac then turned to digging anew the water-wells they had dug in the time of his father Abraham—which the Philistines had stopped up" (Genesis 26:18).
Isaac felt compelled to restore the life-nourishing wells of his father, putting himself in great peril to do so. Yet, he knew that by re-digging those wells, he would be able to preserve the wisdom, the values and the stories that continue to nurture succeeding generations. Through him, we, too, have learned the power of preservation. This type of digging and re-digging has become a life-sustaining enterprise. As Peter Pitzele writes in Our Father's Wells: A Personal Encounter with the Myths of Genesis, "The will to conserve is not based on a rigid adherence to the ways of the ancestors; rather it sifts from the past what is needful for the present; it understands the necessarily integral and integrative quality of true growth; it knows that culture builds upon and not anew."2
As we continue to dig into the ancient wells that have nurtured our people, may we learn how to preserve the best that is within them in order to discover the best that is within us.
1. Robert Krulwich, Radiolab, www.radiolab.org/story/elements/
2. Peter Pitzele, Our Father's Wells: A Personal Encounter with the Myths of Genesis (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995, p. 149)
Rabbi Shoshanah Conover is associate rabbi at Temple Sholom of Chicago, IL.
Tol'dot, Genesis 25:19–28:9
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 173–189; Revised Edition, pp. 172–189;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 133–156