In Parashat VaYishlach, Ya’akov prepares for his first encounter with Eisav since running away from home. In making his preparations, he escorts his eleven sons, two wives, two maids, and all of his possessions across the stream, Ma’avar Yabok (BeReishit 32:23). Ya’akov, however, remains on the other side of the stream, leaving himself vulnerable to the dangers of the night.
Rashi (32:25 s.v. VaYivateir Ya’akov) asks the seemingly obvious question: Why would Ya’akov stay behind and put himself at risk? Rashi answers this question with an interesting Gemara (Chullin 91a), which states that he went back for some small pots. This, in turn, raises another question: Why does he feel the need to go back for such trivial possessions?
A famous story is told of Rav Kotler, a Rosh Yeshivah in Lakewood. He purchased an item for ninety-nine cents, paid with a dollar, and proceeded to wait for his change. When his students asked him why he was waiting for the penny, he responded that if he is not careful with every penny of his own, then maybe one day he won’t value someone else’s penny and that might lead to Geneivah, theft. Similarly, Ya’akov was a person who was very careful with his possessions- even the small pots.
By the time the incident with the pots occurs, Ya’akov has acquired wealth and fortune and is very well-off, but he was not always this wealthy. As we know from the famous Midrash, Eisav sent his son Elifaz to kill Ya’akov after he ran to Lavan’s home. When Elifaz caught up with him, he realized he couldn’t possibly kill Ya’akov because of the positive influence of his grandfather Yitzchak. Ya’akov therefore suggested to him that he take all of his possessions instead of killing him, because someone who is poor is considered to be dead. Elifaz agreed and took all of Ya’akov’s worldly possessions. It is suggested that Ya’akov was left with only some small pots so that he could heat water and make food. This explains why Ya’akov in this story feels the need to return back across the river to retrieve his pots. These pots are symbolic of Ya’akov’s lowly origins and are a reminder that his life was spared, which gave him the opportunity to continue to be connected to Hashem.
This dovetails nicely with the idea that Ya’akov treated his wealth like he treated his service to Hashem. Although he had items that were seemingly more valuable than others, these small, seemingly insignificant pots were actually his sole connection to his past. Their true value was much greater than their market value. So, too, with Mitzvot, it is impossible for us to gauge the importance of each Mitzvah We sometimes, however, find ourselves attempting just that. The Mishnah (Avot 2:1) states, “VeHevei Zahir BeMitzvah Kalah KeChamurah SheEin Atah Yodei’a Matan Secharan Shel Mitzvot,” “You should be scrupulous in a minor Mitzvah as a major one because you don’t know the reward given for the respective Mitzvah.” We can learn from Ya’akov’s character to invest full Kavanah and devotion into everything we do to serve HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
We can take this idea a step further. Later in this section, the Pasuk recounts Ya’akov’s wrestling match: “VaYei’aveik Ish Imo,” “And a man wrestled with him [Ya’akov]” (32:25). Many Midrashim state that this “man” was Eisav’s angel, and explain that because Ya’akov defeated this angel, Eisav is later powerless to harm Ya’akov or his family. But what if this “man” isn’t a man at all? What if Ya’akov’s struggle is internal? What if he is actually struggling to find himself? Perhaps this is Ya’akov’s life-altering moment, when he finally realizes who he is and what his mission in life is. He is renamed Yisrael because he now knows his true purpose. Perhaps it is because he finds his sense of self that he is able to stand up to Eisav for the first time in his life. He can move ahead with no fear because his cause is just. A lesson we can take from Ya’akov’s struggle is that once we realize the value of each and every Mitzvah, we, as the Jewish people, can conquer our fears and reach new levels of service to Hashem.