“Would you rather be rich or happy?” This was the question posed at a seminar, in the attempt to gage the audience to think about which of these goals they were more actively pursuing.

When given the choice, most people just simply don’t want to choose one or the other. We all want both rich and happy! However, considering how our education system works and the messages, both subtle and less subtle that we are fed from society, it would seem that being rich is a far more worthy pursuit than happiness. We spend the majority of our life going to schools that teach us how to be successful and rich, and are conditioned to invest in climbing the corporate ladder no matter what else we must give up to do so. How much time do we actually spend trying to understand how to be happy and investing in happiness?

In this week’s Torah portion there is a unique insight into Judaism’s approach to wealth and happiness. As Jacob journeys back to the land of Israel with his family, he fears the interaction with Esau, his brother, and decides to send a gift to Esau as an act of appeasement. When Esau meets Jacob he responds to the gift saying, "I have plenty, my brother; let what you have remain yours."

Jacob persists in response, "Please no! If indeed I have found favor in your eyes, then you shall take my gift from my hand… Now take my gift, which has been brought to you, for God has favored me, and [because] I have everything."1 Eventually Jacob prevailed upon him, and Esau took the gifts.

Jacob and Esau are both very wealthy, but with a completely different outlook on wealth. Esau says “Yesh li rav” – I have plenty, whereas Jacob says “Yesh li kol” – I have everything.

To have plenty means to have a large amount, more than enough. As Rashi put it, “Esau spoke haughtily 'I have plenty, much more than I need.'” Additionally, the term “plenty” is generally in comparison to others. For example, one could have a million dollars and feel like he is rich because by comparison to the worth of those around him, he actually is. If the same person moves to another neighborhood, where a million dollars may not even be enough to buy a home, he may suddenly feel poor despite any lack of change in financial status. The only thing that changed was the point of comparison.

Jacob approaches money entirely differently. He says "I have everything that I need." Jacob is never comparing his wealth to that of others, only to his own needs.

It is precisely when Jacob is left alone while retrieving the small jugs on the other side of the river, that Esau’s angel attacks him. I believe there is great symbolism here in the fact that Esau is battling Jacob specifically at this moment. Jacob went back to retrieve the jugs because everything he owns is needed and has a purpose. He didn’t acquire physical possessions for no purpose. Each item he had was important and meant something to him. Jacob viewed money not as a goal in and of itself, but rather as a means to an end.

When one appreciates everything that he has, and all that he owns serves a unique purpose, he will merit not only to be rich, but to be rich and happy.

  1. Bereshit 33,9-11