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Money and Happiness #756

12/09/2022 05:25:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Vayishlach 12"

money and happiness

Recently, I sat in on a Hebrew school class taught by one of our senior teachers, known as “Rabbi Shabbos.”

He posed two questions to his students:

The first was, “What is your definition of happiness?” and the second, “Would all the money in the world buy you happiness?”

The replies of our pre bat and bat mitzvah students showed a remarkable sense of maturity. They noted that although it would be great to have an endless supply of money, it is more important to be at peace with yourself and with those around you.

Their responses echoed an important teaching by our great Sage, Shimon ben Zoma, who posed this question: “Who is truly rich?” And he answered: “The person who is truly happy with what they have.”

In many ways, that statement—from our collection of ancient sayings known as Pirkei Avot—echoes the theme of this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach.

It’s been 20 years since our patriarch, Jacob, has been on the run. Two decades earlier, he cheated his brother, Esau, out of his birthright and blessing.

As this week’s Torah portion opens, Jacob is seemingly doing well—materially. He owns cattle, sheep, and asses.

He has married his true love, Rachel, and fathered a dozen children with three other women: Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah.

He is financially independent and has grown into a position of great prestige.

But, something missing. He is not at peace with his twin brother, who vowed to kill him 20 years earlier.

As this week’s Parashah opens, we learn that Jacob and his wronged brother are traveling on a collision course. 

What will happen when they meet? Will Esau extract revenge? Will Jacob request forgiveness?

Jacob separates his camp into two sections. If Esau carries through on this threat, at least half of his entourage will survive. 

Prior to his meeting with Esau, Jacob and his inner circle cross the Jabbok River, and there, the Torah tells us, “Jacob was left alone.”  

That night, Jacob wrestles with “a man.” We are not sure of the man’s identity. Some say it was Esau. Others claim it was an angel. But I support the view that Jacob was wrestling with himself, and—specifically—the errors of his youth.

Jacob stole his brother’s birthright, and repeatedly ran from his problems. Earlier in this life, Jacob agrees to follow God, only if God delivers results.

The dawn breaks after Jacob’s night of reckoning. His hip is displaced and therefore he will limp for the rest of his life. Jacob asks the man for a blessing, but is refused.

The man asks Jacob his name. Jacob answers, “Jacob.” The man replies, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel—for you struggled with beings divine and human, and you have prevailed.”

Within that name-change, lays one of the most important definitions of what it means to be Jewish: The name “Israel” literally means, “Wrestler with God.” We are all wrestlers with God.

Why is the world the way it is? Why is anti-Semitism rising—again? What does God want of us? Does God control the world or do we?

Our tradition understands that posing and exploring questions, is more important than imposing imperfect answers.

And by embracing that unique Jewish perspective, this week’s Torah portion perhaps answers the question posed by Rabbi Shabbos this week to our students.

What does it mean to be truly rich? Jacob, although wealthy and seemingly satisfied, he does not possess one of the ultimately goals within Judaism.

It is known as Shalom Ba’it: Peace in our family, peace in our homes, peace in our domain.

Jacob feels incomplete, so much so that when he sees his long-lost brother, who accepts him favorably, Jacob throws himself on the ground and says, “Seeing you is like seeing the face of God.”

We all can relate to seeing long-lost friends and family; it lights the flame of God within us.

Jacob offers gifts to his brother, who initially refuses but later accepts. The two weep, and go their separate ways in peace. Esau has seemingly let go of his anger, Jacob who has made peace with his past errors, is freed from guilt. 

It’s a brilliant story, which—in some ways—echoes many of our current relationships. Relationships within families can sometimes be complex.

A friend recently shared the story of an acquaintance in his mid-90s, who earlier this year passed away alone. His wife had predeceased him. They had no children.

The only relative he had was a sister, from whom he became estranged decades ago. The man passed away with millions in the bank to be donated to many worthy causes. But he died alone.

A famous line in the 1970s song, Dust in the Wind, reminds us that “All your money won’t another minute buy.” Few of us do not wonder what we would do if we won the Powerball jackpot, or otherwise acquired more money or possessions.

What would we buy? Who would we support? But in the end, as our tradition teaches, ultimate happiness can be found only within Shalom Ba’it—peace withinin our homes and within the boundaries of our lives.

It reminds us to keep the peace, and to make peace with those whom we may be at odds, and let go of those things that take up unnecessary space in our souls.

No one says that the journey of life is easy. Our lives are filled with many conflicts and imperfect relationships. But, as Jacob teaches us, what we physically possess doesn’t mean much without peace with family and friends.

In the end, as Jews, we are all "children of Israel."  As Jacob did at end after his night of wrestling, each of us limps a bit with the battles we have endured, and the mistakes we have made.

But in the end, we must learn to embrace our families, our friends and even this imperfect world surrounding us.

It is the way we learn and grow. For as our tradition teaches, true happiness cannot be found within the material things we acquire, but rather within the peace we create. 

It can be a struggle at times.

It is why, in so many ways, we are all wrestlers with God.

Shabbat Shalom, v'kol tuv.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Fri, September 29 2023 14 Tishrei 5784