Jacob’s Possessions and Having it All

December 13, 2019 | by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld

When Jacob first meets Esau after having spent years in Haran, he gives him a large gift of animals. At first Esau refuses the gift, but then Jacob convinces him to take it. I know there is a nice lesson derived from the way they talked about their wealth, but can’t quite remember it. Do you know what it is about?

The Aish Rabbi Replies

Yes, it sounds like you’re referring to the two ways Esau and Jacob referred to their possessions. When Esau at first refused the gift, he told Jacob “I have much” (“yesh li rav”; Genesis 33:9). Jacob, however, responded that he really didn’t need those animals: “I have all” (“yes li kol”; (33:11)). The Sages note this difference, saying that Esau spoke haughtily – claiming he had much more than he needed, while Jacob was more just: he has all he needs, neither more nor less (see Rashi to 33:11, based on Tanchuma Vayishlach 3).

What is the difference between “much” and “all”? It reflected their different attitudes towards money. Esau was a man of violence and conquest. Capturing booty and accumulating wealth were ends for him. He lived to control and to hoard – and the more the better.

As a result, Esau related to his wealth as “much”. He didn’t view his possessions as serving a specific purpose. It didn’t matter to him what he would do with his wealth or if he had any need for it. His possessions were the purpose. He just wanted a lot. The more he had, the more his power and prestige – all the more so if he had more than he knew what to do with. Thus, in describing his financial success, Esau claimed he had “much”: much more than he required. But it made no difference: Whatever he could get he wanted – just for the sake of having it.

Jacob was the antithesis of this. He was a man of belief. Anything he acquired – or more precisely, which God led him to acquire – were his to serve a purpose. If God gave them to him, he must have a need for them. They must be necessary for his mission in life.

Thus, to Jacob, everything he had was part of “all”: precisely what he needed. For Jacob his wealth was not an ends but a means – one of the tools God gave him to fulfill his purpose in life. And for that, he correctly recognized that God gave him “all” he needed – exactly what he required for his life’s mission, nothing more and nothing less. He could therefore tell Esau he lacked for nothing – because he knew that God had granted him and would continue to grant him everything he needed in life.

In this vein, the Talmud states that the possessions of the righteous are dearer to them than their bodies – because they are scrupulously honest about everything they earn (Hullin 91a). Since a righteous person is careful never to acquire property unethically, he can be completely certain that whatever he does own God wanted him to have. Thus, his wealth is precious to him – a gift directly from God. And if God gave it to him, he must be careful not to squander it or spend it irresponsibly, but to use it in the manner God wishes.

The Talmud (ibid.) sees Jacob himself as illustration of this point. Right before he met Esau, he had been returning with his family from Laban’s house to the Land of Israel. He had been transporting his family and possessions across the Jabbok River, and in the process ended out by himself on the near bank of the river, after everyone and everything else had crossed over. (This was the scene in which he meets and battles Esau’s guardian angel.)

Why did Jacob return to the other side of the river if everything had been taken over already? Explains the Talmud because he realized he forgot small containers (“pachim ketanim”). To Jacob, his every possession was precious to him – a commodity entrusted to him by God. And so he risked his life to retrieve his smallest possessions.

There is a beautiful addendum to the above thought. Later on in Genesis, when Jacob is first told that his son Joseph is still alive, after 22 years of separation, the first word that came out of his mouth is “Much!” (“rav”; Genesis 45:28). The implication, clearly, is that this is “much” – a very great cause for joy.

It’s interesting to note that the same Jacob who did not use the word “much” in reference to his property said exactly that upon hearing that Joseph was still alive. Doesn’t “much” imply something extra, more than deserved, whereas regarding his wealth Jacob viewed it as “all” – just what he needed, nothing more and nothing less?

The answer is that there is a clear distinction between wealth and the other blessings of our lives. Regarding wealth, Jacob understood that God would provide him with all his needs. Whatever mission God had in mind for him, it was reasonable to assume God would provide him with the wherewithal to fulfill his mission. Thus, Jacob viewed money he received with a degree of justice – through the perspective of “all”. God gave me exactly what I need, nothing more and nothing less.

However, there is no such assumption when it comes to personal happiness. We just don’t know what God will grant us in life. Perhaps He wants us to serve him through pain and suffering. There might be a given how much income a righteous person can expect God to give him, but there are no assumptions regarding happiness. God just might want His precious servant to serve Him best by bearing the sadness of tragedy and loss. Nothing, Jacob realized, he could take for granted.

Thus, when Jacob did receive the wonderful news that Joseph was still alive, Jacob related to it as “much”. This was not a matter of receiving what he deserved. It was none other than a gift from God.

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