The Value of Life
This week's Parsha finds Jacob crossing the Jordan River into Israel. Besides a family of 15, Jacob's entourage includes a slew of servants, and large herds of goats, camels, donkeys and cattle. Safely crossing the Jordan was quite a project!
After sending everyone across the river, the Torah says that "Jacob remained alone" (Genesis 32:25). Why was he alone on the far side of the river? The Talmud (Chulin 91a) says that "Jacob forgot some small earthenware jugs and returned to retrieve them."
This is difficult to understand! Here is Jacob, an extremely wealthy man, and he's risking another trip across the river to retrieve some dime-a-dozen jugs! That's makes about as much sense as Bill Gates making a special trip across town to pick up a quarter that he'd dropped!
Of course, one should calculate the value of his time before undertaking to retrieve lost property. But Jacob lived with the understanding that all the possessions God gives are for a purpose. As such they are precious jewels to be infused with meaning and purpose. To Jacob, the fact they were inexpensive was of no consequence. The world is brimming with potential waiting to be fulfilled.
In the Torah account of creation, God commands the Earth to produce vegetation, including "Aitz pri oseh pri" - fruit trees that produce fruit (Genesis 1:11). But the verse could have simply said "trees that produce fruit." Why the redundant "FRUIT trees that produce fruit?"
The commentators explain that God wanted not only the tree to produce fruit, but also that the wood itself should be "fruity." We see from here that the wood of the tree is not merely a means to an end, but has intrinsic value in and of itself.
So too everything in our world.
Rabbi Ezriel Tauber explains this concept with a metaphor: Let's say I'm thirsty, so I ask a friend to bring me water. He brings me water in a paper cup, and what do I do? I drink the water and throw out the cup.
But now let's say I'm wandering in the desert and dying of thirst. So I lift my eyes to Heaven and say, "God - I'm dying - please make a miracle and send water!" And lo and behold, a hand reaches down from Heaven and gives me water in a paper cup. So I drink the water... But what about the cup? I'm not going to throw it away - a cup from Heaven is a great souvenir! Because God could have sent me the water any way He wanted: He could have made it rain, or created an oasis, or simply opened my mouth and poured the water in. So the fact that God included a paper cup says that He not only wanted me to have the water, He wanted me to have the cup as well.
Our lives are filled with objects, items, people and ideas. Each has its own purpose and meaning, waiting to be discovered.
To be a Tzaddik
We've all heard the term "Tzaddik" - a perfectly righteous person. But what defines a Tzaddik? Good deeds? Pious behavior? Indeed, these are attributes. But what truly defines the Tzaddik is that he looks at every possession and situation in his life as coming directly from God. In that, all of life is meaningful.
This outlook is emphasized again in our parsha. After 20 years apart, Jacob is reunited with his twin brother Esav. In describing their state of affairs, Esav says: "I have a lot;" Jacob says "I have everything." (Genesis 33:9-11)
The difference is subtle, but in fact speaks volumes. Esav is saying: "I have a lot..." but I sure could use more! Whereas Jacob is saying: "According to my part in God's grand eternal plan, I have everything - exactly as I need." Everything is a special gift from God. Everything is an opportunity to get closer to God.
Today, society is plagued by a disease called "Disposability." We have forgotten the principle that "everything has value." When a toaster breaks, we buy a new one. When a shirt tears, we get a new one. And how do we subconsciously carry this into our relationships? When a marriage is dull, do we get a new one?
How does "disposability" affect the overall value society places on life? How does this impact environmental conservation? How does this impact violent crime?
In Deuteronomy 20:19, t he Torah commands us not to cut down fruit trees. This extrapolates to a general prohibition against being wasteful, called "Bal Tash'chit." Just as in the Garden of Eden, the fruit tree represents that which has intrinsic value. And the principle applies to all of life.
Take stock of your tools. Your talents, ideas, friends, resources. Figure out their meaning and purpose. Be grateful for all that you have. Don't be so quick to throw it away. Recognize how life is ordered exactly the way it's supposed to be. And actualize the full beauty and potential of this and every moment.
Rabbi Shraga Simmons