That same night he arose, and taking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions. Jacob was left alone. (Genesis 32:23-25)
As I was getting up one morning, I reminded myself that a relative of ours was having minor surgery that day, and I promised myself that I would make a phone call in the afternoon to ask about her well-being. During the course of that hectic workday, I forgot, but later that evening, I asked my husband if he knew how she was doing. He had called the hospital and told me that she was fine, just a little groggy from the anesthesia. I felt better for a while but couldn't get rid of the feeling that I really should have called myself. I rationalized that my husband's call expressed the concerns of our entire family, that our relative was doing fine, and that the surgery had been minor. Like many of you, I am a very busy person, with a demanding job, a husband, children, and grandchildren. I have all these good intentions: to remember a dear one's birthday, to call a friend for no particular reason, and to recall little things about people that may not seem important. Why can I not live up to my own standards? Why does life always seem to get in the way?
In this week's portion, Jacob returns home after twenty-two years of living in exile with his uncle Laban. He has acquired wives, children, and property. But before Jacob is able to go home, he needs to confront Esau, the brother who threatened to kill him after having been deceived by Jacob so many years ago. Jacob is afraid and uses various strategies in order to protect his family and possessions. He hopes to mollify Esau by sending him gifts (Genesis 32:19). But since Jacob is unsure that the gifts will do the trick, he sends all the members of his family, his household, and his possessions across the river. He has worked hard for all that he has accumulated over the years and wishes to do everything in his power to safeguard what is his. We certainly can identify with Jacob's strategy. After all, our world—like his—is full of the realities of working to achieve success and then protecting what we have worked so hard to acquire. It is a world in which we are judged mostly by our achievements and by our material worth.
But something strange happens in the text: Jacob chooses to remain behind alone (Genesis 32:25). Why, if he has just taken his family and all his belongings across the river, does he not go with them? Talmud, Chulin 91 asks the same question and answers it by saying that Jacob returned to the original site because he had forgotten some pachim k'tanim, "small jars," and that is the reason he finds himself alone. That statement would probably make sense if Jacob had been a poor man, but why would he cross the river again to go back for some insignificant things of little value? Could it be that these seemingly insignificant items—a child's blanket, perhaps, or a wife's favorite pot—were of some importance after all? How are we to know if the things we do or don't do are of any consequence? Jacob goes back because there may not be another opportunity for him to do so later on. He may not know for certain if what he is going back for is important, but back he goes because what seems of no importance to him at that moment may have great meaning to someone else in his family. Like Jacob, let us try to be more aware and not miss opportunities to perform small acts of kindness or share a loving word, smile, or call. Let's sweat the small stuff because it may actually end up being as important as the big stuff.
By the Way
This may well be the central dilemma in the lives of many of us. We want—indeed, we need—to think of ourselves as good people, though from time to time we find ourselves doing things that make us doubt our goodness.… Our souls are split, part of us reaching for goodness, part of us chasing fame and fortune and doing questionable things along the way, as we realize that those two paths may diverge sharply. Our self-image is like an out-of-focus photograph, two slightly blurred images instead of one clear one. (Harold S. Kushner, Living a Life That Matters, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001, p. 15)
There are many fine things that you mean to do some day, under what you think will be more favorable circumstances. But the only time that is surely yours is the present; hence this is the time to speak the word of appreciation and sympathy, to do the generous deed, to forgive the fault of a thoughtless friend, to sacrifice a little more for others. Today is the day in which to express your noblest qualities of heart and mind, to do at least one worthy thing that you have long postponed, and to use your God-given abilities for the enrichment of some less fortunate fellow traveler. Today you can make your life significant and worthwhile. The present is yours to do with as you will. (Grenville Kleiser, quoted in Day by Day, edited by Chaim Stern, Boston: Beacon Press, 1998, p. 121)
When Rabbi Moshe of Kobrin died, the Rabbi of Kotzk asked one of the Kobriner's disciples what things his master had considered most important. The man answered: Whatever he was engaged in at the moment. (Chasidic story)
- Do you think it was unwise and dangerous for Jacob to go back across the river in order to retrieve some small items? Do you think that it is foolish to get involved in situations in which others might need your help?
- According to Rabbi Kushner, how might an individual get a clearer picture of who he or she really is?
- What does Glenville Kleiser mean by "Today you can make your life worthwhile"? Why does he think that today is more important than yesterday or tomorrow?
- Do you agree with the above texts that being present in the moment enables us to focus more on the things that matter to us and to others?
Tirza Arad is the director of education at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York, NY.
Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4-36:43
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 217–237; Revised Edition, pp. 218–240;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 183–208