Parashat Vayishlah: How to have it all

Parashat Vayishlah How

"And Esau said, 'I have much,'… And Jacob said, 'I have it all'" (Genesis 33:9,11) The Book of Genesis is filled with sibling rivalry, specifically over the patrimony, and we have commented about the two aspects of that inheritance: the blessing (bracha) of material possessions, and the firstborn status (bechora), which brings familial leadership. We have learned from the life of Abraham and his two sons that the recipient of the patrimony was not always who was born first chronologically; rather, it was an issue of character, of who would be most suitable to convey the Abrahamic covenant - the message of ethical monotheism - to the next generation and indeed, to the world. We have suggested that Isaac desired to divide the patrimony, giving the bracha to Esau (the elder) and the bechora to Jacob (the younger). It was Rebekah who insisted that the two parts remain together, and ensured that Jacob received both. Rebekah's argument was certainly a cogent one. If the mission of the Abrahamic family is to succeed within Israel (both the nation and the land) and then spread to the entire world, the economic infrastructure, military and political dimensions of the bracha would be crucial. But at the same time, it is clear from the Bible that it is the bechora, the moral and ethical commitments, that are the essence of the patrimony; the character traits of the bracha are more easily acquired as one matures. Even more to the point, Rebekah may have gone too far in her manipulation of events. She wanted to provide Jacob with a veneer of the tough, grasping hunter. But especially under the tutelage of Laban, that aggressive and materialistic exterior almost overwhelms Jacob's gentle and wholehearted soul. If Jacob was to be worthy of the bechora two decades after he received it, he would have to give up the gains he had made by deceiving his father, purge the Esauistic craving for material objects from his personality, and reclaim his innate values as the true grandson of Abraham. The internal exorcism of Esauism takes place in this week's portion, when Jacob wrestles with an anonymous assailant identified by our sages as the "spirit of Esau" (Gen. 32:25-30). The external exorcism immediately follows, when the brothers confront each other and Jacob offers Esau extravagant gifts. Esau, ready to forgive and forget, demurs: "I have much [rav], my brother. Let what is yours remain yours." Jacob objects, saying, "Take my blessing [bracha], which was brought [back] to you, because God has been gracious to me and I have it all [kol, everything]" (Gen. 33:9,11). The dialogue is revealing, especially about how each now views material possessions. Esau says he has 'much,' but that doesn't mean he doesn't want more; indeed, as I learned from my childhood rebbe, Rav Menahem Manus Mandel, an individual with $100 may be wealthier than an individual with $200. How so? Because a person's wealth is measured not by what he has, but by what he thinks he's lacking, and everyone wants to double what he has. Hence the person with $100, who wants $200, only lacks $100, whereas the person with $200, who wants $400, lacks $200! Jacob, on the other hand, has arduously learned that material blessings are merely a means to an end - a gift from God; the true prize is the bechora - the ability to transmit God's message of compassionate righteousness and moral justice. Jacob spends his life doing just that: conveying the message of the covenant to his 12 sons and his daughter. He now understands that all material possessions must ultimately be returned to God, and that with his familial continuity secure in his ancestral homeland, he "has everything, he has it all." I had a close friend in elementary school who would come to class every day with two dimes, one for the charity "pushke" and another for an ice-cream. Once, as we were walking together, he tripped and one dime fell into the sewer. "Too bad, God," he said, "there went your dime." Much more to the point was my beloved friend Zalman Bernstein who, from a hospital bed in the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center during the last days of his life, said to me: "The only thing I really have is what I spent on my children's education and what I gave to good charitable causes." Fortunately, he learned that lesson long before his final illness. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.