IF ONLY I WERE WEALTHY

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Chapter Two

"Lots' vs. "All'

A tailor was hit by a car and lay on the ground. Another individual covered him with a blanket as the ambulance approached from the distance. The man asked the victim,

"Are you comfortable?"
The tailor responded
"I make a living!"

Comedian Henny Youngman

There is a significant confrontation in the Torah which sheds light on the questions raised thus far. Although it is a story read by millions every year, most readers do not view this story from the perspective of man's relationship to money. Yet, for resolving the questions raised earlier, it must be viewed in this way.

It is the story of an ideological confrontation between Ya'akov (Jacob) and his twin brother Eisav (Esau), two archetypal personalities. [The story begins in Braishis at 25:19 and continues until 33:18. Details mentioned here that are not found in the text of Braishis are taken from the midrashim, primarily Braishis Rabbah.] From an early age, Ya'akov was "sitting in tents", [Braishis 25:27; see Rashi on Sitting in Tents.] which is understood to refer to Ya'akov's practice of devoting himself to the study of Torah. Eisav, on the other hand, the first born, was a cunning and ruthless hunter.

[Though Torah, as we know it today, was not given until centuries later (2448/1313 BCE), its principles are the building blocks of creation. Spiritually sensitive individuals, such as Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya'akov could uncover Torah principles from within creation. Furthermore, tradition mentions that Shem, the son of Noach, together with his son Eiver, had their own 'yeshiva' which Ya'akov attended on his way to Padan Aram when fleeing from Eisav.]

Ya'akov became concerned about his brother's behaviour because, as the first born, Eisav was expected to lead the family and Eisav's descendants would eventually lead the nation. Being a family devoted to spiritual goals, Eisav seemed unfit for this future leadership role.

Ya'akov had no desire to usurp Eisav's right to the leadership. (Midrash Agada, 25:29) He merely wanted to ensure the spiritual destiny of his grandfather's (Avraham's) descendants. But when Eisav exhibited unseemly behaviour, Ya'akov felt compelled to act.

At the age of fifteen, Ya'akov purchased the birthright from his brother Eisav. (Braishis 25:29) Eisav, claiming to be on the verge of death from exhaustion, approached his brother for some nourishment to save his life. The food Ya'akov was cooking was the meal traditionally served to a mourner, who in this case was his father Yitzchak (Isaac) whose own father, Avraham, had died that day.

And where had Eisav been that day? Consoling his father Yitzchak? Mourning over the loss of his illustrious ancestor? No, he had been out in the fields conquering and killing, which almost cost him his life. Eisav's exhaustion created an ideal opportunity for Ya'akov to purchase the birthright in return for the food Eisav so desperately sought.

The next episode occurs when Ya'akov and Eisav are 63 years old. Rivka (Rebecca), the brothers' mother, learned that Yitzchak was about to bestow upon Eisav the blessings of the first born son. Concerned for the spiritual well-being of the future Jewish nation, she persuaded Ya'akov to disguise himself as Eisav in order to fool the now blind Yitzchak into blessing him instead of Eisav. [Actually, once Ya'akov bought the birthright from Eisav, he became the firstborn in place of Eisav thereby already being the fitting recipient of the blessings. Ya'akov's father Yitzchak (Isaac) only became aware of this after the fact.] The plan worked, and after Eisav realized what had happened, he schemed to avenge himself.

As a result, Ya'akov was forced to flee for his life to his uncle's home in Padan Aram (Mesopotamia). Thirty-four years passed before Ya'akov felt confident enough to begin his journey home to Canaan, and to confront his brother Eisav.

As Ya'akov approached the borders of Canaan and his brother's territory, he couldn't help but be concerned that Eisav might still bear sufficient grudge to want to destroy him. In anticipation of this possibility, Ya'akov prepared for war. Then Ya'akov went out to meet Eisav and his army, readying himself for the worst and praying for the best.

However, what followed was less than the spectacular battle that might have ensued:

Ya'akov looked up and saw Eisav approaching with 400 men... [Ya'akov] then prostrated himself seven times as he approached his brother.
Eisav ran to meet them. He hugged [Ya'akov], and throwing himself on his shoulders, kissed him. They wept...
"What did you have to do with the whole camp that came to greet me?" asked Eisav.
"It was to win favour in your eyes," replied [Ya'akov]. "I have plenty, my brother" said Eisav. "Let what is yours remain yours."
"Please! No!" said Ya'akov,... "Please accept my welcoming gift as it has been brought to you. God has been kind to me, and I have all [I need]." [Ya'akov] urged him, and he [Eisav] took it."

(Braishis 33:1-12 (excerpted))
They then departed, each in his own direction, quite anti-climactically.

In the preceding story it appears that the Torah has detailed a seemingly non-eventful confrontation. However, the starting point of understanding what occurred between Ya’akov and Eisav is the premise that the Torah's primary purpose is always to deliver a message about ideal morality. To that end, the Torah is exact as to what it says and how it says it, omitting any superfluous information which might distract the reader from its all-important message.

Therefore, the description of the confrontation between Ya'akov and Eisav must be concerned with more than the resolution of their personal conflict. All the events including their dialogue must somehow be understood as a crystallisation of the Torah's particular message.

Looking at the dialogue again one finds a subtle point of tremendous significance with regard to man's relationship to money.

"I have plenty, my brother" said Eisav. "Let what is yours remain yours.
"Please! No!" said Ya'akov,... "Please accept my welcoming gift as it has been brought to you. God has been kind to me, and I have all [I need]."
The highlighted words are few yet say so much, especially when you take into account the explanation of the classical commentator Rashi. (See Rashi on this verse, Braishis 33:11, I have all.) According to Rashi, the underlying meaning of Ya'akov's words was that he had all that he needed; Eisav, on the other hand, spoke in a proud manner, telling Ya’akov that he had much more than he needed.

Rashi insightfully isolates Eisav's ideology through the episode of the gift. Eisav's initial refusal of the gift, Rashi points out, was not due to generosity of spirit, but was instead Eisav's attempt to give Ya'akov the impression that he was powerful and had everything - even that which he didn't need and could never use.

Unlike Eisav, Ya'akov did not relate to material possessions quantitatively, but rather, viewed them in terms of their potential to allow one to develop spiritually. Whereas Eisav claimed to be rich, Ya'akov proclaimed an attitude: I have received all that I need. It was this attitude towards the physical world that made Ya'akov wealthy, no matter how rich he was, as the mishnah** confirms:

Who is wealthy? One who is happy with his portion! (Ethics of Our Fathers, 4:1)
Imbedded in the dialogue and the context of the story as a whole, is also a deeper message about man's relationship to money, which sheds light on the questions raised earlier. Contrary to outward appearances, Eisav's words represented his belief on a conscious level that the more he was able to acquire, the more he would be - the illusion that evolves by focusing on material pursuits as ends in themselves.

We see from the Torah's account that Eisav's hunger to conquer and possess caused him to diminish his appreciation for spiritual ideals. This was true of Eisav to the point where he was driven to material pursuits in spite of foregoing irretrievable opportunities to heighten his sensitivity, such as occasioned by the mourning period for his grandfather Avraham.

Furthermore, the Torah's message is about outward appearances; about the allure for material success that is created by false heroes whose true moral focus and actions we know little about. Thus the story highlights Eisav as the archetype of the false hero, admired throughout the history of civilization for his cunning, combat skills, smooth talking persuasion and financial means; admired ultimately for tremendous potential - potential that is unable to ever result in meaningful expression.

In truth, the 'Eisavs' of history are often insidiously indistinguishable from the true heroes. Even Yitzchak loved Eisav (Braishis 25:28) because of Eisav's cunning diplomacy. However, as has often been the case with the 'Eisavs' of history, the telling behaviour of Eisav had taken place outside the view of the critical eye of his admirers.

Thus, while on the surface, the episode of the gift presents Ya'akov and Eisav as important men of means exchanging pleasantries, in fact they represent ideological opposites. Therefore, in the end, though a physical confrontation between the brothers did not take place, an ideological one did; a confrontation whose philosophical underpinning traces back to the purpose of creation.

© by Mercava Productions

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