In this week’s parsha, Yaakov finally has his face-to-face confrontation with his elder brother Esav, bringing to the fore two conflicting lifestyles and weltanschauungs. Yaakov has lived with their trickster Uncle Lavan for over 20 years, earning his living as a shepherd and raising his family, whereas Esav has spent his time hunting and mastering his martial skills. Esav arrives with 400 armed men ready for battle, while Yaakov has his family and his flocks carefully arranged to ensure the best escape plan if Esav attacks.
Yaakov, unaware of his brother’s true intentions, and recalling the broiling anger Esav expressed shortly before he fled to Lavan’s house, attempts to placate Esav with multiple tributes consisting of choice animals selected from the flock he raised while working for Lavan. Esav, though possibly impressed by the gifts, informs Yaakov that they aren’t necessary,
“'I have much; my brother, let that which you have remain yours,’” (Bereishis 33:9). In short, Esav is plenty wealthy enough as it is. He has a lot of stuff, and has no need to accept Yaakov’s tribute.
Yaakov, however, insists that Esav take the animals, and even pleads with him to do so, saying, “‘…Please take the gift I brought to you; because G-d has been gracious with me, and because I have everything,’” (33:11). Only after Yaakov strongly urges Esav to accept the gifts does Esav acquiesce and take possession of the animals.
Many commentators, including Rashi, point out the nuance of language in the two brothers’ claims regarding their personal possessions. Each exemplifies a different perspective with regard to material possessions and happiness in life.
Esav represents the ever typical avaricious person constantly looking to obtain more possessions. As such, he remarks that he “has much.” He owns many things, including many animals. Sure he could always use more, but he doesn’t need his brother’s gift at the present time. The Midrash (I can't find the source, help anyone?) comments that Esav actually did desire Yaakov’s animals, but he gave the pretense of refusal in order to present an air of humility which he did not actually possess. Thus, after Yaakov firmly and genuinely insists that Esav accept the animals, Esav “gives in,” in appearances alone, and takes the tribute he had coveted the entire time.
Yaakov, by stark contrast, states that “I have everything” and attributes Hashem as the source of his wealth by proclaiming “because G-d has been gracious with me.”
Yaakov is a model example of Ben Zoma’s opinion as found in Pirkei Avos 4:1, where Ben Zoma describes several ideals of human behavior and perspective, among which is the famous dictum, “Who is rich? One who is happy with his portion.” Yaakov understands that whatever he has been given is from G-d, and whatever material possessions he now owns are the totality of the things he needs. With that attitude, he really does have everything.
Related to that Mishna in Pirkei Avos, there is a Gemara in the tractate of Shabbos on daf 25B where several sages give their own views on who is considered to be wealthy,
“Our Sages taught: Who is wealthy? He whose soul is pleased by his wealth: this is Rabbi Meir's view… R. Tarfon said: He who possesses a hundred vineyards, a hundred fields and a hundred slaves working in them. Rabbi Akiba said: He who has a wife whose actions are pleasant. Rabbi Yossi said: He who has a bathroom near his table.”
Rashi comments that Rabbi Meir’s view, that a wealthy person is one “whose soul is pleased by his wealth,” is the very same approach as Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avos, “one who is happy with what he has,” regardless if he owns much or little.
However, wow do we explain the other three opinions, which make reference to far more specific things that may be unattainable for most, such has owning 100 vineyards, 100 fields and 100 slaves, or things that seem somewhat trivial such as having a bathroom near one’s table?
Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz, in his commentary on this Gemara, notes that these scholars are speaking about their own personal experiences. Rabbi Tarfon was actually rather wealthy, and spoke about owning many vineyards, fields and slaves. Rabbi Akiva on the other hand, had very meager possessions, but his wife Rachel was a very righteous woman who encouraged him in his studies so that he could become the great Torah sage we now know. Thus, his happiness was manifested in his wonderful, supportive wife. Rabbi Yossi suffered from a terrible intestinal disease, and thus in his eyes wealth came in the form of owning one’s own bathroom that was nearby and easy to access.
As we see, each of these sages embodied the words said by Ben Zoma and Rabbi Meir. Each was happy with what he had, whether that was a lot (Rabbi Tarfon), a little (Rabbi Akiva) or even what one possessed amidst physical suffering (Rabbi Yossi). They defined wealth from their individual experiences; being wealthy was whatever each of them owned and benefitted from. To them, what they had was truly everything they needed, just as Yaakov expressed to Esav.
Indeed, we can all learn a great lesson from these sages and our forefather Yaakov. There is no standard for what it means to be wealthy. There is no reason to play the game of keeping up with the Cohen’s, being envious of a neighbor’s car, house, or other material possessions. Whatever we have is meant to be ours, and Hashem wants us to be happy with the things that we possess. He wants us to be happy because what we have is what He has chosen to give us. As the verse states in Koheles in two different places (3:13 and 5:18, quoted here) “Every man also to whom G-d has given riches and wealth, and has given him the ability to eat from it, and to take his portion, and to be happy in his work - this is the gift of G-d.” Being happy with what we have, and recognizing that we have the possessions we own because Hashem wants us to have them and enjoy them to their fullest is one of the greatest gifts G-d can give us.
Think about one major thing in your life that is important to you. Perhaps it's a car that works properly and infrequently breaks down. A house/apartment with a price or rent you can afford so that you have a place to live. An inhaler for those with asthma, which allows them to have relief from their symptoms. Even something such as a decongestant pill that allows you to breathe better through your nose (like me). Maybe your spouse, and all the wonderful things he/she does for you and means to you. Reflect on that one thing, appreciate how it makes you a wealthier person. Then, expand that sense of appreciation to the many other things in life we've been given.
Let us recognize and appreciate that Hashem bestows material possessions upon us, that we are blessed with the ability to use and enjoy them, and to be truly happy – and wealthy – with all the gifts that G-d gives us.