Daughter #2 asked me what I thought was a very good question this Shabbos. When Eisav came in from the field starving from hunger, why did Ya’akov not simply give him some food? Isn’t that how chessed is supposed to work? If you see someone starving, is that really the time to drive a hard bargain with him to force him to see something you want?
In other words, we can go through all the halachic details of why this sale did not violate ona’ah, why it was not a davar she’lo ba la’olam, etc. but at the end of the day, was it the right thing to do? Wouldn’t sharing the food at no cost have been better?
My answer is that we need to look at this episode in context of the extenuating circumstances that were in play. Ya’akov knew the spiritual value of the bechora; he knew that value was lost on Eisav. To maintain the status quo would be no less than spiritual suicide for Ya’akov. Chessed means we must share what we have, but if the cost of doing so is the sacrifice of one’s own existence, then all bets are off. I would say it is analogous to the classic gemara of being lost in a desert with a friend and you have only one glass to water – you don’t have to share the water if it would mean your own death. Or, to take another analogy, in the Heinz dilemma there is good reason to justify even theft. Ya’akov didn’t steal what Eisav had, but given the opportunity, he made the best of the situation.
I meant to write about this topic a few weeks ago but just didn’t have time. Avraham is the paradigm of chessed, yet he separates from Lot, he drives away Hagar and Yishmael, he insists that his son marry only in the family to the exclusion of even friends. Aren’t these acts a breach of chessed? No, they aren’t. The danger posed by Lot, by Yishmael, by the Kena’ani tribes, was so great that Avraham had to distance himself from them for the sake of spiritual self-preservation. Along similar lines, the Brisker Rav notes that Avraham was mekareiv so many people to belief in Hashem -- how could he drive away Yishmael and not be makareiv him? He answers that to do kiruv, first one's own house must be in order. Keeping Yishmael around would have meant the destruction of Avraham's own spiritual house.
There are a number of nice books that have been published by members of Harvard's Program on Negotiation, among them William Ury's "The Power of a Positive No." In a nutshell, his thesis is that being respectful of the needs of another party need not force one into accomodating their requests if one's own deeply held convictions or needs demand otherwise.
If we want to be ba'alei chessed but that the same time have a sense of self, we need to learn how to deliver a positive no.