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Do You Prefer Having a Lot or Everything?


One of the frequent causes of both anxiety as well as depression is frustration at not achieving one’s goals.

“He who has 100 wants 200,” our sages stated [1], “and he who has 200 wants 400.” 

When, pray tell, can one finally be satisfied?

Regarding the definition of who is rich, the Mishnaic sage Ben Zoma gives the following formula [2]: “Who is rich? He who is happy with what he has.”

What does one have to do with the other? One can be rich and sad as well as poor and happy. Why define material wealth according to one’s state of mind?

We can find an answer in this week’s Bible reading, Vaishlach [3], where we read about the dramatic encounter between Jacob and Esau, after 34 years of separation.

Jacob had run away from his parents’ home because his older brother Esau wanted to kill him. After twenty years living at the home of his uncle, Laban, Jacob decides to return and, faced with the news that his brother was coming to greet him with four hundred men of war, he decided to try to appease him by means of a gift consisting of various herds of animals.

When they finally meet, after having received the gift, Esau tells Jacob that he doesn’t need the animals because “I have a lot”. Jacob responds by telling him to keep the gift because “I have everything”.

Which of the two had more, Jacob or Esau; the one who had “everything” or the one who had “a lot”?

We don’t know which of the two had more zeros in their account. What we do learn from this exchange between the brothers is the difference between being truly rich and simply having wealth. To be “rich” is a state of being, independent of the amount of material wealth one may have at the moment and “to have wealth” is a circumstantial condition that does not define the state of being of its circumstantial owner. 

Why did the two brothers describe their respective economic situations so differently?

It was based on two different economic philosophies.

The differences in their respective philosophies were based on two different premises regarding how they perceived the origin of their wealth as well as how they understood its destiny.

Esau understood that his wealth was the result of his business acumen and cunning and that it was there for him to enjoy personally and selfishly. He owed no one anything. Nevertheless, he thought: “Yes, I have a lot, but if I were to have been more astute I would have generated much more and I would be able to enjoy life even more.”

Jacob, on the other hand, understood that everything he had came to him by divine blessing and the purpose of what he had was not simply for him to enjoy, but first and foremost to enable him to fulfill his life mission, to improve the world in which he lives. As a result, he never thought that he lacked anything. If it were necessary for him to have something, he reasoned, G-d would have made sure to provide him with it. In other words, he had everything he needed

It should be noted that Jacob’s position was not one of conformity or passivity. We see that he made great efforts and strategies to generate his wealth. What Jacob understood was that after all the personal effort, the results depend on G-d and there is no reason to think that one could have generated more than one has. (This does not imply that effort in the future will not generate even more. For now it’s all you could have generated because that’s all that you need.)

So this week’s tool/meditation is: plowing and sowing depends on you; raining and growing depends on G-d. If you didn’t plow and sow, not even G-d sending you rain can make your crops grow. And if you did everything within your power, accept the results as “everything” you need right now to fulfill your mission and you will not just be satisfied, you will be happy. 

1.Kohelet Rabbah 1:13; 3:10.

2. Avot, 4:1

3. Genesis 32:4 – 36:43

First published in English on my blog at Times of Israel, December 10, 2019


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