In this week’s parsha, Yaakov prepares to confront his estranged brother Esav. On the eve of the great rendez-vous, Yaakov crosses his entirely family and possessions across the Yabbok River on the way towards their destination. But before he can cross safely with the rest of the camp to the other side, he finds himself alone. In that moment Yaakov is visited by a vengeful angel, and the famous wrestling match ensues. What caused him to remain alone on the other side of the Yabbok River? The Talmud teaches us that Yaakov was collecting the remaining small vessels that had not made it over with the rest of his possessions. That Talmud (Chullin 91a) explains that from this event we see that the property of a righteous person is more beloved to him than his own physical safety. As one is not meant to travel alone at night, it was an extremely dangerous decision to do so for the sake of a few Ikea glasses.
But it is unclear why Yaakov, or any righteous person, would consider their property as more valuable than their own physical well-being. Aren’t the righteous supposed to be above attachment to physicality?
The commentary of the Ben Yehoiada (Chullin ibid) answers that a righteous person is incredibly careful with his own money, even someone as wealthy as Yaakov, to show his children that even a small amount of value is important, so that they should not justify even the smallest act of theft or mistreatment of other people’s property. But it is still unclear from the Ben Yehoiada why a righteous person would be praised for putting himself in a life and death situation merely in order to teach a lesson about theft.
Rav Tzaddok (Pri Tzadik, Parshas Vayishlach, 10) answers that a righteous person understands that any physical gifts Hashem gives to him is an indespensible part of his purpose in life. He explains further that if the tzaddik doesn’t use it properly, it’s as if he has “stolen” from Hashem. Therefore the Talmud teaches us that a righteous wants to use all of his divinely given property, even seemingly insignificant vessels, exactly in the way that Hashem expects him to, or else he has stolen. But this only leads to a greater question: why should one’s property be more important than his own body – weren’t both of them given to humans to use in the most divine way possible? How can Yaakov sacrifice the gift of health for the gift of property?
The Meshech Chochma (Devarim 6:5) turns our question into an answer. How can a person put himself into mortal danger for the sake of small vessels? Because a righteous person’s love for Hashem goes so far that his self sacrifice goes beyond being willing to die for big causes, but it even reaches to what other would consider negligible, mundane activities such as small acts of charity. Thus Yaakov was willing to risk his life even for the chance to do a mitzvah with a penny’s worth of property.
Another satisfying interpretation is given by both the Michtav M’Eliyahu (Vol 4, p.296) and the Sichos Mussar (Sichah 50). They explain that while both the body and property are gifts of Hashem, for the righteous their property is more beloved to them because they earned their property through their own effort, while their bodies were given to them for free. While we may value gifts, we are meant to value the ability to earn our own gifts even more.
It is not always so easy to use the stories of our patriarchs as literal examples for our own lives. How many of us can say that we see each and every trinket in our possession as a divine gift, one that is indispensable for our mission in life? Only when we can do so, would it be a permissible act to put ourselves in harm’s way to protect those possessions. Nonetheless, the lesson serves to heighten our awareness of the value of all things, whether it’s a grand piano or a toy whistle. All the more so if the grand piano was an inheritance, whereas the toy whistle was earned through hard work.
- December 2nd 2020