Small Vessels

Jacob views material possessions as essential and indispensable.

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Provided by Canfei Nesharim, providing Torah wisdom about the importance of protecting our environment.

Before Jacob‘s epic encounter with Esau, reuniting with his brother after decades of estrangement, Jacob brings his family and possessions across a stream. He then returns at night to the other side of the stream, and the Torah narrates that: “Jacob remained alone.” The rabbis see the word “alone” (levado) as superfluous, and understand it as related to the similar sounding lecado, “for his vessel,” yielding, “Jacob remained for his vessel.”

canfei nesharimThat is, say the rabbis, he re-crossed the stream at night to recover a few small vessels he forgot to bring across. Why does Jacob, facing an imminent confrontation with Esau and his 400-man militia, leave his family alone and vulnerable at night to recover a few forgotten flasks? Why were they so important to him?

The seeming absurdity of Jacob’s action becomes understandable when one examines his worldview: he believes that everything in his possession comes from God, has a specific purpose, and must be used to its full potential. As one rabbinic commentary explains, each material item that a righteous person uses is a means toward spiritual repair in the world. Jacob went back for the vessels to ensure they were used in the optimal way. Had he not, their full potential would not have been realized.

Against Wastefulness

The truly righteous recognize the value of their God-given possessions, and are very careful with them, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant they are. While not overly attached to material things, they do not dispose of objects prematurely or use them inappropriately. Indeed, the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yochanan, on his deathbed, told his students to remove the vessels from his room lest they become contaminated by his corpse, and thereby unusable (Berakhot 28b).

The Sefer HaChinuch offers insight into the spiritual root of Jacob’s action. Regarding the commandment not to wastefully destroy anything (bal tashchit), he writes:

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Jonathan Neril is the project manager of the Jewish Environmental Parsha Initiative. He is a rabbinical student in his fourth year of Jewish learning in Israel. He received an MA and BA at Stanford with a focus on global environmental issues.

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