Righteousness in a disposable culture

The significance of "Pakim Ketanim," a fundamental component of righteousness.

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran

Judaism Raising the banner of Torah in Bet El
Raising the banner of Torah in Bet El
צילום: INN:RS

Twenty long years after entering Lavan’s household, Yaakov is finally returning home to Eretz Yisrael.  During that time with Lavan, he had grown in wealth and in life; he has wives, he has children. He is no longer a “young man”; he is a man.  After crossing the Yaabok river, he is ready to confront Esav and his “army”, to address his history of great conflicts with his brother.  

The Torah describes this crossing “with his wives, family, possessions” and then, a mere pasuk later, tells us, “vayivater Yaakov l’vado”, Yaakov was left alone.  How is it that he was alone?  He had been with his wives, with his family and then… alone.  What happened? The Talmud, in Chullin 91a, informs us, that indeed he crossed over to the other side with his family and “all of his many possessions” but he had forgotten some pachim ketanim – small jars – on the other side of the stream and he went back for them.  What? He went back for some small jars?!

We are expected to accept this account on its face, that Yaakov, after all he’d been through, after all his trials and tribulations going back to Esav’s passionate hatred of him, to his mother urging him to leave home, to seeing Rachel at the well and falling in love, to being tricked by Lavan and working for him for so many hard years, to finally girding himself to confront his brother – after all this, we are asked to imagine that he crosses back over the river to collect some pachim ketanim that he’d forgotten?  

The Talmud anticipated our astonishment and explains that the lesson here is more significant than just going back for these simple items.  It is about a fundamental component of righteousness.

It is an axiom that righteous people are honest and upright; they do not steal.  Therefore, whatever they possess has come to them through honest and diligent effort.  It follows from this that they value each of their possessions and are willing to put themselves at some risk to protect them.  When it comes to tzadikim, there is no such thing as “easy come, easy go.”  No cut corners. No “wink, wink, nod, nod”. What they have is theirs and they therefore do what they must to protect and preserve it.  

Still, when we think of the tzadik, do we really picture someone who treasures something trivial; someone willing to retrieve jars?  When we think of the tzadik, we think of spirituality and righteousness, not mere things.  Classical Mussar sefarim remind us to, “not make gold your infatuation, for that is the beginning of idol worship.”  Why then would Yaakov, a role model for tzadikim, return for these forgotten, trivial jars?

L’havdil.  Let us not compare “apples to oranges” here.  Yaakov is not “making gold his infatuation”. No tzadik, and certainly not Yaakov, is enamored with “things” for their own sake.  There is a big difference between pursuing more possessions (i.e., “making gold your infatuation”) and safeguarding one’s possessions.  Tzadikim take care of their possessions because they are always cognizant that whatever they have comes from God, Who anticipates and expects that His gifts be safeguarded and used fully and constructively.

This understanding is the foundation for the Torah’s prohibition of ba’al tashchis - not to waste, not to destroy.   That we live in a world bounding in waste should not blind us to the deeper value of things.  

The tzadik is always aware that if God granted and gifted him with something then it is to be guarded and valued, so much so that he would cross back to the other side of the Yaabok.  Note, it matters not how “significant” or “insignificant” the possession is in and of itself.  Who wouldn’t cross back over the Yaabok if he left a precious diamond behind?  But pachim ketanim?  Only the tzadik recognizes that they are truly God’s gifts and that God expects them to be looked after as long as they are usable and useful!  There is no object that God has provided that is meaningless.  The true worth of an object is found in the fact that God has provided it for a purpose.

If God wants me to be in possession of an object then I am obligated as a matter of holiness and piety to use that object purposefully and constructively; it should never be wasted, neglected, or destroyed senselessly.

We have all seen the poor among us, going through other people’s waste and garbage, looking for bottles and cans, small treasures to turn into cash.  A poor person would certainly cross back over the river to retrieve small jars. But Yaakov was a wealthy man. He was a man of stature. What could these simple jars possibly have meant to him?  He could have purchased hundreds more. In going back for them, he demonstrated that they had worth and he valued them because God provided them.

If Yaakov acted this way, how much more so should we?

It is unsettling to picture this wealthy man returning for such insignificant objects.  And returning himself, not even sending servants.  In our cultural imagination, we are apt to picture a man who would do such a thing as petty, or miserly, or mentally imbalanced.  We live in a disposable culture. Products are made to age out, and quickly! Remove and replace! Things are, after all, just things.  Yaakov’s actions teach us a different lesson than our culture teaches.  His actions teach us that nothing is disposable. Nothing is just a thing.  His actions teach us that honestly-earned wealth has spiritual value to the righteous.  These so called trivial jars, were not trivial for Yaakov. They spoke to who he was at his essence.

By recognizing in them a gift from God, he turned them into vessels of holiness, and as such they were as precious as jewels.  

The question is not, why would he return for them?  The question is, How could he not?

The Talmud, in Chagigah (3b-4a) and elsewhere, discusses the legal category of a shoteh, a person who is mentally incompetent and is therefore precluded from testifying, performing financial transactions, or effecting a legal state such as marriage or divorce. A shoteh cannot blow the shofar or recite Kiddush for others. 

There are significant halachic implications to being a shoteh.  It is not a designation that should be applied thoughtlessly.  A shoteh is not simply one with limited intellectual or mental capacity.  Determining who is truly a shoteh is of significant concern due to these halachic implications.  For example, if a person has a profound mental breakdown and is unable to function as a husband and his wife subsequently requests a get/divorce what happens?  After all, a shoteh can’t grant or receive a get.  If a man who has a breakdown is considered a shoteh do, we condemn his wife to a lifetime trapped in an unhappy marriage?  

The Talmud lists a number of behaviors, if done without valid reason, that demonstrate one is shoteh.  One of these behaviors is me’abed kol mah sh’notnim lo - “he destroys/loses anything of value that is given to him.”  To our ancient scholars, one who does not or cannot respect the value of that which is given to him is to be considered incapable of full participation in the mitzvot.  The implication being that as long as a person is able to safeguard possessions and not destroy that which is given to him, he is to be legally considered as competent.

While determining competence is often more complex and subtle than a single trait, behavior or characteristic, these commentaries do set up a powerful dialectic – caring for an object defines a tzadik; destroying; abandoning an object defines a shoteh.   

Which returns us to our underlying question, why should caring for an object – a thing! – serve as a barometer of one’s competence?  Why is caring for one’s possessions righteous behavior?  The answer is powerfully simple. Because we receive items for a reason, for a purpose.

No letter in the Torah is without meaning; no letter is placed without holy intention.  In a similar way, no possession comes to us without meaning or purpose. How we relate to the objects in our possession defines our status.

We do not have things for the sake of having things.  Owning possessions for the sake of owning more possessions is not righteousness.  But to use that which we have constructively, purposefully and with mindfulness is an expression of righteousness.  While the tzadik knows this to be true, the rest of us remain lost in a numbing materialism.  We value some things for their own sake and remain dismissive of other things.  While we assume we deserve all that we have, and have a right to all that we desire, the tzadik never assumes anything.  And if the righteous one ever does start to slip into the same numbing fog of materialism that most of us inhabit, there are the one hundred b’rachot recited daily to remind him of the Source of all possessions, spiritual and material.  

The Gemara (Gittin 64b) describes a test that can be used to determine if a young child has a basic level of intellect.  When presented with a stone and a nut, two items that are plain, small and round, does the child keep the nut and discard the stone?  In other words, is the child capable of seeing intrinsic value in one thing over another. The tzadik recognizes that the intrinsic value of a thing is in God providing it.

Our “conventional” image of the tzadik is related to ritual, to prayer, to piety and to Torah study.  Yaakov teaches us a new, insightful way to understand that righteousness is of this world – it exists in our relationship with simple objects as well as with weighty behaviors.  Righteousness exists because God exists, not only in the monumental but in the simple and the everyday.