Give Us Your Poor

Rabbi Wagensberg
Parshas Vayishlach
Give Us Your Poor

Our Parsha talks about a wrestling match between Eisav's archangel and Ya'akov Avinu (Gn. 32:25; Rebbi Chammah b'Rebbi Chaninah, Bereishis Rabbah, 77:3; Gn.33:10). After bringing his entire family across the Jabok River, Ya'akov went back, alone, in the dark, to retrieve small flasks that he had left behind (Rebbi Elazar, Chulin, chap. 7, "Gid Hanasheh", pg. 91a). This was when the angel attacked him.

When dawn broke and the angel saw that he was not able to defeat Ya'akov, the angel asked Ya'akov to let him go. Ya'akov refused to let him go unless the angel would admit that the blessings that Ya'akov received from Yitzchak actually belonged to Ya'akov (Gn. 32:27; Rashi citing Midrash Aggadah)

There are a number of difficulties with this story. First of all, the angel attacked Ya'akov only after Ya'akov went to get the small flasks. This implies that the battle between them was because of the flasks. What is the connection between the flasks and the attack?

Additionally, why did Ya'akov demand that the angel agree that Yitzchak's blessings actually belonged to Ya'akov specifically after they struggled with each other?

Moreover, why did Ya'akov seek the angel's approval of the blessings to begin with? Who cares what the angel thought?

The Shvilei Pinchas says that in order to understand one approach which answers these questions, we must first explore what type of financial test is greater. Is the test of poverty greater than the test of wealth or is the test of wealth greater than the test of poverty?

The Chassam Sofer (Parshas Shelach) and many other commentaries agree that the test of wealth is more difficult than the test of poverty. Although a poor person suffers, starves, is embarrassed, and is even tempted to steal, the tests of a wealthy person are even harder. This is because a poor person still remains connected to God by constantly calling out to Him for help. A poor person also remains humble which is perhaps the greatest quality to possess (Igeres HaRamban).

However, a wealthy person can easily come to forget about God. He may not feel a need to call out to Hashem because he already has everything his heart desires. This creates distance between himself and God. A wealthy person may also credit himself for his successes as opposed to acknowledging that God was the One Who brought about his accomplishments. This leads to arrogance and a host of other sins.

Ya'akov Avinu was tested with both poverty and wealth in his lifetime. After running away from Eisav, Elifaz (Eisav's son) robbed Ya'akov of all his money and possessions (Bereishis Rabbah 68:2; 70:12; Rashi Gn. 29:11 citing Sefer Hayashar). Nevertheless, Ya'akov stayed steadfast in his dedication to serve HaShem. We never found Ya'akov complain about his poverty. Ya'akov never stole anything from anybody and he remained diligent in his Torah studies.

After passing the test of poverty, Ya'akov was tested with the test of wealth. Ya'akov became exceedingly prosperous (Gn. 30:43). According to the Midrash, he had 600,000 flocks of sheep. Perhaps we could suggest that those flocks of sheep corresponded to the 600,000 families that left Egypt. Perhaps this connects Ya'akov with being not only the shepherd of animals but also the shepherd of the Jewish People.

Although Ya'akov amassed such incredible wealth, we find that he remained humble and connected to God. Ya'akov told Lavan that if it were not for God, Lavan would have certainly sent Ya'akov away empty-handed (Gn. 31:42). Ya'akov clearly credited God for his success and not his own ingenious ideas of how to produce the desired spotted sheep.

Ya'akov certainly lived up to the Mishnah that says that one who fulfils the Torah when he is poor, will, in the end, fulfil the Torah when he is wealthy (Rebbi Yonasan, Avos 4:9). The order of this Mishnah teaches us that ideally, God first tests a person with the easier test of poverty. It is only if he succeeds that he is then given the harder test of wealth. In this way, the person grows gradually from one level to the next.

The Shvilei Pinchas says that this explains the connection between Ya'akov going back to retrieve the flasks and the sudden battle between him and Eisav's archangel. The angel already saw how Ya'akov passed the test of poverty after Elifaz robbed Ya'akov of all his money. However, Ya'akov now returned a wealthy man. The angel observed how Ya'akov went back for the flasks. To the angel this appeared strange. Let me give you a modern day equivalent as to what Ya'akov's actions might have looked like to an observer.

Imagine a very wealthy man, at night in Manhattan, getting into his chauffeur driven limousine. As they drive through the Bronx, they pass by a dark alley in which the wealthy man notices a closed package of plastic cups. The wealthy man requests that his driver stop so that he can go and get those cups. The driver says, "You've got to be kidding me! It's dangerous out there. It's not worth risking your life for some cups. Look, you're a wealthy man, so when we get to a Costco you can buy as many packages of cups as you want!"

Similarly, Ya'akov Avinu was a multi-millionaire. Why would he endanger himself by going back alone in the middle of the night for some flasks? It's not worth it! Leave the flasks behind and buy new ones later. The angel reasoned that the only explanation for Ya'akov's irrational behavior was that Ya'akov must have failed in the test of wealth. He must have become stingy which is an illness that some wealthy people catch if they are not careful. This illness prevents them from letting go of their "hard earned money".

Convinced that Ya'akov was faltering, the angel attacked him in order to destroy Ya'akov and spiritually bury him alive! However, the angel passed quick and critical judgement on Ya'akov. The angel was mistaken. The reason why Ya'akov went back for the flasks was because righteous people are careful to protect their money so that they will never be tempted to steal from somebody else. Righteous people are so concerned about other people's property that they never even want to entertain the thought of taking something away from somebody else illegally. In order to ensure that they are never drawn to other people's property, righteous people are cautious with their own money. They are even willing to put themselves at risk to avoid thieving (Rebbi Elazar, Chullin, chap. 7, "Gid Hanasheh", pg. 91a). This is what motivated Ya'akov to return for the flasks.

When the angel saw that Ya'akov was still humble and connected to God, he realized that he was grossly mistaken by jumping to the wrong conclusion. Recognizing that he could not budge Ya'akov from his righteousness, the angel went on to plan "B". The angel struck Ya'akov on his thigh. There is a double reason for this. First of all, the thigh represents a person's descendants that stem from between his thighs (Bereishis Rabbah, 77:3). If the angel could not topple Ya'akov over, then he would attempt to topple his descendants. In what way was the angel going to cause them to stumble? This is hinted to in the second meaning behind being struck on the thigh.

The thigh is generally the place where a person has pockets. Pockets are usually used for keeping money. Striking Ya'akov on the thigh meant that he would tear down Ya'akov's descendants with the pitfalls of wealth and poisoning them with stinginess. If the wealthy descendants of Ya'akov would refuse to support Torah study, that would weaken the Jewish People and seal their fate (Zohar, Vayishlach, pg. 171a).

When Ya'akov emerged the victor from the bout he had with the angel, he requested that the angel admit that he truly deserved the blessings that Yitzchak gave to him. The timing of this request makes a lot of sense. When analyzing the blessings of Yitzchak, we find that they are all material blessings. Yitzchak did not want to give Ya'akov those blessings because Yitzchak recognized Ya'akov to be the one preoccupied with Torah study. Torah students are typically not well off financially. As such, they are familiar with the challenges that come with the turf. However, should a Kollel man become suddenly wealthy, he may not be equipped to overcome the challenges that come with riches. Since Eisav was already a man of the world (Gn. 25:27), Yitzchak thought that he would be able to handle the test of wealth because Eisav was accustomed to the physical furnishings that this world has to offer. In the end, Ya'akov received those blessing through trickery. Nevertheless, Ya'akov surprised Yitzchak by overcoming even the test of wealth.

This is why it was now imperative for the angel to admit, specifically now, that Yitzchak's blessings belong to Ya'akov. Now that the angel has seen for himself that Ya'akov was passed the test of wealth, he had to agree that the physical blessings were indeed fitting for Ya'akov.

Deep down, the real reason why Ya'akov sought out angelic approval of the blessings was in order to put a stop to Eisav's constant prosecution. Eisav always argued that the physical blessings of Yitzchak do not belong to Ya'akov because he would not know how to handle it. But, once Eisav's archangel agreed that Ya'akov deserved them, Eisav would also have to confess that Ya'akov was the rightful owner of the blessings.

The Shvilei Pinchas adds that this is the reason why Ya'akov suddenly received a second name, Yisrael (Gn. 32:29). The name Ya'akov is rooted in the word "Eikev" (heel). Since the heel is the lowest part of the body, it represents one who has fallen financially to the lowest of places. The name Ya'akov represents that Ya'akov passed the test of poverty. However, the name Yisrael is rooted in the word "Rosh" (head). Since the head is the highest part of the body, it represents one who has risen financially to the highest of places. The name Yisrael represents the fact that he passed the test of wealth.

Perhaps we could add that the name Yisrael does not substitute the name Ya'akov, rather it is in addition to Ya'akov. This is because his two names teach us that he passed both sets of tests in the two chapters of his life. Since we are all referred to as B'nei Ya'akov and B'nei Yisrael, we are constantly reminded that we all have the ability of passing these tests as well. What our Patriarchs accomplished in their lives, paved the way for us to follow in their footsteps (Ramban, Gn. 12:6; Tanchumah, #9).

In order to ensure that we live up to this expectation, there is one spiritual workout that we could try over the weekend. Those of us who feel that we are struggling financially should sit down with a cup of coffee, a pen and a piece of paper. We should make a Cheshbon Hanefesh (Spiritual Accounting) to see if we are passing the test of poverty. We must ask ourselves some serious questions. Do I second guess Hashem for my predicament? Am I completely honest in business? Did I ever steal anything from anybody? Do I still set aside time to study Torah and do Mitzvos?

If after answering these questions we find ourselves to be righteous, then we can look forward to God challenging us with the test of wealth. However, if the answers to these questions are such that we find ourselves to be unrighteous, how can we ever hope to become wealthy? If we couldn't pass the easier test of poverty, how can we expect to pass the harder test of wealth?

Those of us who feel that we enjoy financial success also need to make a Cheshbon Hanefesh to see if we are passing the test of wealth. There are some serious questions that must be asked here as well. Am I arrogant? Do I credit Hashem with my successes? Am I stingy? Do I give enough charity?

If the answers to these questions are that we passed, we can hope to continue serving God amidst wealth. If not, we should be concerned that God might demote us to a lower financial class where the challenges are easier.

So, May we, B'nei Ya'akov, be blessed with the strength to overcome the challenges of poverty, in order that we, B'nei Yisrael, go on to pass the test of wealth and stand as a shining example for others to emulate.