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The Value of Life

Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43 )

by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

Everything in the world is a potential springboard for meaning.

This week's parsha finds Jacob crossing the Jabbok River into Israel. Besides a family of 15, Jacob's entourage includes a slew of servants, plus large herds of goats, camels, donkeys and cattle.

After sending everyone safely across the river, the Torah says that "Jacob remained alone" (Genesis 32:25). According to the Talmud (Chullin 91a) Jacob was alone because he "forgot some small earthenware jugs and returned to retrieve them."

This is difficult to understand. Jacob is an extremely wealthy man, yet risking another trip across the river to retrieve some dime-a-dozen jugs! That's makes about as much sense as Bill Gates making a special trip across town to pick up a quarter he'd dropped.

Jacob lived with the understanding that all his possessions were given by God for a purpose. To Jacob, the fact that these jogs were inexpensive was of no consequence. In his eyes they were precious jewels, brimming with potential.

Intrinsic Value

In the Torah account of creation, God commands the earth to produce "fruit trees that produce fruit" (Aitz pri oseh pri – Genesis 1:11). The verse could have simply said "trees that produce fruit" – why the redundant "FRUIT trees that produce fruit?"

The commentators explain that God wanted not only the tree to produce fruit, but also that the wood itself should be "fruity." The wood is not intended merely as a means to an end, but has intrinsic value in and of itself.

So too everything in our world.

Rabbi Azriel Tauber explains the following metaphor: Imagine that I'm thirsty, so a friend brings me water in a paper cup. I drink the water and throw out the cup.

Now let's say that I'm wandering in the desert and dying of thirst. I lift my eyes to Heaven and say, "God – I'm dying – please make a miracle and send water!" Lo and behold, a hand reaches down from Heaven and gives me water in a paper cup. I drink the water... but what about the cup? I'm not going to throw it away – a cup from Heaven is a great souvenir! Surely God could have sent the water in any number of ways – by making it rain, or creating an oasis, or simply opening my mouth and pouring the water in. The fact that God included a paper cup says that He not only wanted me to have the water, but wanted me to have the cup as well.

To Be a Tzaddik

We've all heard the term "tzaddik" – a perfectly righteous person. But what defines a tzaddik? Good deeds? Pious behavior? Indeed, these are attributes. But what truly defines the tzaddik is looking at every possession and situation in life as coming directly from God. In that way, all of life is deeply meaningful.

This outlook is emphasized again in our parsha when, after 20 years apart, Jacob is reunited with his twin brother Esav. In describing their state of affairs, Esav says: "I have a lot." Jacob says, "I have everything." (Genesis 33:9-11)

The difference is subtle, but in fact speaks volumes. Esav is saying: "I have a lot..." but I sure could use more! Whereas Jacob is saying: "According to my part in God's grand eternal plan, I have everything – exactly as I need."

Our lives are filled with so many objects, people and ideas. What is the value of each? If we only open our eyes and focus, we can discover the deeper meaning and purpose of everything as a special gift from God.

Disposable Life?

Modern society is plagued by a disease called "Disposability." We have forgotten the principle that "everything has value." When a toaster breaks, we buy a new one. When a shirt tears, we get a new one.

How does "disposability" affect the overall value society places on life? How does this impact environmental conservation? How does this impact violent crime? How do we subconsciously carry this into our relationships? When a marriage is dull, do we get a new one?

In Deuteronomy 20:19, the Torah commands us not to cut down fruit trees. This extrapolates to a general prohibition against being wasteful, called "Bal Tash'chit." Just as in the Garden of Eden, the fruit tree represents that which has intrinsic value – a principle which applies to all of life.

Life is ordered exactly the way it's supposed to be. Take stock of your tools – your talents, ideas, friends and resources. Explore their deeper meaning and purpose. Be grateful for all that you have. Don't be so quick to throw it away. Actualize the full beauty and potential of this and every moment.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons


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