To feel truly rich, cherish the life you have already

Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

Hosea 11:7 – 14:10

by Rabbi Pinchas Lipner

In Vayetze, the patriarch Jacob offers to G-d what at first might appear to be a conditional vow — a kind of quid pro quo. He says, "If G-d will be with me and he will keep me in this way that I go and He will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear so that I come back to my father's house in peace, then the Lord will be my G-d (Genesis 17:20-21).

According to many commentaries, Jacob's promise was not a condition but an affirmation or part of a prayer. The word im in Hebrew often means "if," as translated above. However, the commentary Hakesav VeHakabalah interprets this word as derived from the word "Amen." Jacob was declaring that he hoped that what he prayed for would all take place, but he was not making his devotion to G-d conditional. The commentary cites several occasions in the Bible where "im" is understood to mean "surely" and "nevertheless," both affirmative declarations. "Im" is also used to mean "hopefully." So the verse can be understood to mean, "I hope that the Lord will be my G-d and that He will protect me where I go and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear."

In any event, this verse is a clear example of another important verse in the Ethics of the Fathers (4:1): "Who is rich? He who enjoys his lot."

The Ralbag explains Jacob's request as meaning, "It is not fitting for a person to be eager for wealth. Rather he should be content with what is essential, bread to eat and clothing to wear."

Proverbs 30:9, too, tells us, "Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me." That is precisely what Jacob requested — to live a modest life in the land of his fathers, thus establishing the Lord as his G-d — the Lord and not a god of gold or silver.

The Kli Yakar similarly explains that Jacob not only wanted to ask that which G-d should give him but also that which G-d should not give him. He did not want more food than he needed to eat or more clothing than he needed to wear. He prayed not to be blessed with gold or jewels but only what was essential for his needs.

The Mussar works (a movement stressing moral self-improvement through introspection) praise the value of the person who is content with and indeed enjoys his portion, suggesting that such a person is close to perfect. The rich person, on the other hand, may never be satisfied, never feel rich enough to enjoy what he has.

Along this line, King Solomon speaks of "a man to whom G-d gives wealth, and possessions, all he desires but G-d does not give him the fulfilling power to enjoy them."

It is as if a person had been given a room full of treasure but not the key to its locked door. Such a person seems to live in a purgatory that a Russian peasant once imagined:

"When a man is in purgatory," said he, "he is placed in a barrel of whisky, but he cannot bend down to drink it."

The key to being able to find riches in all things is developing the gift of finding happiness in one's immediate circumstances, whatever they may be.

The father of King Solomon, King David, in the Book of Psalms (128:2) writes: "Happy shall you be and it shall be well with you." Our sages explain this to mean, "You shall be happy in this world and it shall be well with you in the World to Come." Interestingly, the essence of the World to Come is that no one there receives anything from anyone else.

Only someone who is material can receive something, but a spiritual being is complete in itself. So a person who is content with his lot is like one who is already in the World to Come. From this discussion we can glean why Jacob alone is referred to as "the perfect one." He is described as shalem complete, whole, perfect. This applies to Jacob after he prays for only "bread to eat and clothing to wear" and for nothing else.

It is a basic principle of the Torah, which is unfortunately too often ignored. The readiness to eschew luxury contributes to our ability to reach spiritual perfection.