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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayishlach, Custom-made possessions
Jacob tried to appease Eisav by sending him a huge, elaborate present consisting of numerous domestic animals as well as diamonds and pearls. Jacob returned to the other side of the river to retrieve some small earthenware utensils that he had forgotten. "Forty days prior to the creation of an embryo [at the time of conception], a heavenly voice cries out." Every possession is beshert. Man has the ability to elevate his possessions as well as any part of creation by utilizing them in his service of G'd. The twelve stones quarreled amongst themselves, each wanting to be the stone upon which Jacob would rest his head. Every possession of a person is custom-made for the person's need in his particular service of G'd. For this single, righteous individual, the noble family, together with their servants and employees, has been kept busy to ensure that this person could rest a little on the way to his mission. "Who is rich? The one who is satisfied with his lot." Just as a person's possessions and income are part of a person's "lot", so too are a person's expenditures. A person should be careful not to over-spend, as one will not get more than was originally decided. Remembering that every item is given to us by Divine blessing, to be utilized in our service of G'd, will help us to be careful with all our possessions and to set an example for our children and others to follow in Jacob's footsteps.
In the beginning of this week's Torah portion the Torah relates how Jacob prepared himself for his encounter with Eisav. Rashi (Bereishis 32:9) quotes our sages that Jacob prepared himself in three ways. First of all, he tried to appease Eisav by sending him a huge, elaborate present consisting of numerous domestic animals as well as diamonds and pearls (see Rashi Bereishis 32:14). He further prepared himself for warfare when he heard that Eisav was advancing with an army of four hundred men. Finally, he prayed to G'd that G'd should save him and protect him from his brother's evil intentions.
The Torah continues to relate (ibid 32:23) how Jacob got up at night and moved his whole camp across the river Jabbok. After he had crossed the river with all the members of his camp and their possessions, Jacob returned by himself to the other side of the river. Rashi quotes from the Talmud (Chulin 91a) that he went back to retrieve some small earthenware utensils that he had forgotten. This seems strange. On the one hand, Jacob spent a fortune on his present to his brother. On the other hand, he went out of his way to salvage some cheap earthenware. Is this not a contradiction?
Embryo and heavenly voice
I recently heard a tape by Rabbi Israel Reisman from one of his popular Saturday night lectures. He answered the above question with a quotation from Rav Tzaddok HaKohein of Lublin (Divrei Sofrim para.3). Rav Tzaddok explains that every belonging of a person has a spiritual connection to this person. As the Talmud (Sotah 2a) says, "Forty days prior to the creation of an embryo [at the time of conception], a heavenly voice cries out and announces, 'The daughter of so and so is destined to so and so'. That particular house is destined to so and so and that particular field is destined to so and so."
The concept of a "soul mate" who is beshert from Heaven is well known. The Talmud here reveals to us that at the same time that a person's spouse is decreed in Heaven a similar decree is made in regard to the person's future possessions. Rav Tzaddok explains that this does not just refer to major possessions such as a house and a field, but to every utensil belonging to a person. Every possession is beshert.
In the First Chapter of the Path of the Just (Mesillat Yesharim), Rav Moshe Chaim Luzatto explains that every thing was created to serve man. Man has the ability to elevate his possessions, as well as any part of creation, by utilizing them in his service of G'd. On the other hand, if a person is drawn after the worldly pleasures and utilizes his possessions and other things in this world to satisfy his cravings and physical desires, this person will fall and drag the world down with him. Instead of being elevated to assist their owner to serve G'd, his possessions have become a vehicle to merely pursue his self-gratification.
Even the most mundane activities of a righteous person, such as eating and sleeping, are part of his service of G'd. Therefore, whatever he uses for these activities are elevated to a higher spiritual level. As an example of this Rav Luzatto refers to the twelve stones that Jacob placed around his head for protection when he went to sleep (see beginning of Parashas Vayeitzei, Bereishis 28:11). The Talmud (Chulin 91b) explains that Jacob was such a righteous person that the stones quarreled amongst themselves, each wanting to be the stone upon which Jacob would rest his head. G'd performed a miracle and combined them all into one stone. As it says (Bereishis 28:18), "And Jacob arose in the morning and took the stone that he had placed by his head." Although stones have neither intellect nor emotions, everything in creation has spirituality. This spirituality connects every part of creation to the spiritual world of angels who express the spiritual yearning of even stones and plants. With this we can understand that the stones "felt" that they would fulfill their spiritual purpose by serving the righteous Jacob.
Rav Eliyahu Dessler elaborates on this and explains that every possession of a person is custom-made for the person's need in his particular service of G'd. All individuals have their specific purpose why they were born into this world, and each person is provided with the necessary utensils to fulfill this purpose. As mentioned earlier, even things that do not belong to a person, but just benefit this individual, are part of this individual's utensils needed for his unique purpose.
The righteous individual
Rav Chaim Friedlander quotes the Rambam (Introduction to Seder Zeraim of Mishnayot) to explain this concept. The Rambam writes a parable about a nobleman who had a magnificent castle built where he and his family lived for generations. They indulged themselves in partying, hunting, and other purposeless activities. They employed hundreds or even thousands of employees over the years; first to build the castle, and later maintaining it, as well as a staff serving them in their daily needs. They may have built up large businesses or enterprises to keep up their lifestyle of affluence and pleasure-seeking. However, the question arises, from a Divine point of view, what has been the purpose of it all? They have done nothing to benefit humanity and help their fellow beings. All their life was just one indulgence after another. Says the Rambam, G'd may have orchestrated all of this for the benefit of one righteous person, who hundreds of years after the castle was built, traveled on a mission and passed by and found shelter from a blistering sun in the shade of the walls of this castle. For this single, righteous individual, the noble family, together with their servants and employees, has been kept busy for generations to ensure that he could rest a little on the way to his mission. By assisting this righteous person in his service of G'd, everyone and everything involved in building and maintaining the castle were elevated to a higher purpose.
A person's lot
Once we realize that all of our belongings are designated by Heavenly decree, we can understand that whatever we have been blessed with is exactly what we need to fulfill our needs and purpose. This is what the Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 4:1) says, "Who is rich? The one who is satisfied with his lot." The "lot" of a person includes everything surrounding him, his spouse and his possessions. When a person accepts this, says the Rosh (Tamid 32a), he will neither envy another's persons wife nor his belongings. Every person's family situation is unique. Some are blessed with children, some are not. Some have children with special challenges; others have children with special abilities. This is all part of a person's "lot" that he is provided with to fulfill his unique purpose.
Just as a person's possessions and income are part of a person's "lot", so too are a person's expenditures. If a person is required to spend money through no fault of his own, he must accept this as a Divine decree. Similarly, a person must be aware that part of the money he made was provided to him for the purpose of distribution to the needy and other charities. The Talmud (Ketuboth 111a and Bava Basra 9b) encourages us to give with a smile and a kind word to the recipient. The person who realizes that the money he dispenses to the needy was given to him for that purpose will find it a lot easier to distribute it generously. Everyone is obligated to give money to charity. In general, it is proper to give ten percent of one's assets and subsequent income, but the one who can afford it should ideally give twenty percent. The Talmud (Ketuboth 50a) learns this from Jacob's promise in the beginning of last week's portion, when Jacob said to G'd (Bereishis 28:22): "And all that You will give me, I shall repeatedly tithe to you." From the fact that Jacob promised to G'd to tithe repeatedly, our sages learn that the one, who is in a position to do so, should tithe twice, i.e. twenty percent (see Ahavas Chesed 2:19:3).
Not spend extravagantly
On the other hand, the fact that all of our belongings are Divinely custom-made obligates us to look after our possessions and our money. The Talmud (Beitzah 16a) teaches that the yearly income of a person is decided every year on Rosh Hashanah. Rashi, in his commentary, adds that a person should be careful not to over-spend and not to buy unnecessary items or in an extravagant manner, as one will not make more than was originally decreed.
Careful with possessions
We live in a time of affluence and of mass production. In earlier generations, when everything was handmade, people appreciated much more the necessity to look after one's belongings. In our days it is hardly worthwhile to fix and mend broken utensils, and many items are disposable. All this has brought about a carelessness for looking after even valuable items. One merely has to walk into any public place to see all sorts of unclaimed items that have been left behind. Our Patriarch Jacob taught us that even an affluent person, who can allow himself to spend a fortune when necessary, should not loose sight of looking after and preserving both large and small items. Remembering that every item is given to us by Divine blessing, to be utilized in our service of G'd, will help us to be careful with all our possessions and to set an example for our children and others to follow in Jacob's footsteps.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network