Why is it that we seem to pile up so much junk in our basements? What is it about us human beings that makes us want to save so many useless things? An insight concerning this tendency appears in this week's Torah portion.

Jacob had just completed his preparations for battle against his brother, Esav. He had divided the camp into two so as to provide an escape for at least one of the camps during battle, and had prepared and sent gifts as a tactic to try and appease Esav. The two camps crossed over a body of water and then Jacob finds himself vulnerable and alone in the middle of the night. This is when Jacob is attacked by and wrestles the angel. (See Genesis 32:9,21-25.) The question is why did Jacob allow himself to be alone?

Rashi (32:25) provides the answer based on the Talmud Chullin 91a. Jacob had crossed over the water with his family but realized that he had forgotten 'small vessels', so he returned for them. He apparently did not want to disturb or inconvenience anyone else from his camp and went back for his vessels alone. But why would Jacob endanger himself like that, just for a few petty vessels? Indeed, the Talmud (ibid.) derives from this incident that one should never walk alone at night in a dangerous neighborhood. So what was Jacob thinking?

We will find a solution in a general discussion about the concept of possessions.

We find a curious saying from our Sages. In the 'Shema Yisrael' prayer, we recite the verse, 'And you should love God with all your heart, all your life, and all your possessions' (Deut. 6:5). "If it already states, 'with all your life', why does it need to state 'with all your possessions'? Because there are people who value their possessions more than they value their lives (Yoma 82a)."

Yes, we do seem to care very deeply and passionately about our possessions and some people would give their very lives to defend their possessions. Why? Do we not intuitively understand that life itself is more important?

A possession is something much deeper than simply an object that I happen to own. When I acquire an object, I gain power over that object. Even if I never use the object, the very fact that I am aware that I could use it if I so desire, gives me a tremendous feeling of power. Why else would people bid in auctions for antiques that cannot ever be put to use? It is the feeling of "I own it. It's mine. I have power over it. It gives me a sense of control."

There is a well-known, highly successful businessman worth 500 million dollars who still is actively at work. A friend asked him, "Why don't you retire already? How much money do you need anyway?"

The man replied, "It's not about money, it's about power. When I own 3 gas stations in Kenya and 4 supermarkets in Idaho, I feel mighty and powerful. I am shaping the world!"

Our fascination with possessions and power goes back to mankind's early existence. Eve, after having been banished from the Garden of Eden as a result of sin, gives birth to her first child, and calls him Cain. She says, "I have acquired (canisi) a man with God."

The child was her creation, her acquisition. Hence, the name Cain really means possession. Why would Eve state this as her first fact of existence post-Garden of Eden?

In the Garden of Eden, individual possessions did not exist. There was no concept of jealousy or possessiveness because the Garden had unlimited supply of everything for all. Immediately after leaving the Garden, Eve realizes that human beings will now need to possess things in order to function in the world. Their possessions will define who they are and what their focus of life will be. Eve defines post-Eden existence as a world of possessions. The acquisition of possessions will be the drive of mankind.

The question for all mankind though is: for what purpose will we acquire possessions and what kinds of possessions will we strive to attain?

Jacob, as do all holy, righteous individuals, takes great pride in his possessions because he sanctifies all that he owns by using objects for the service of God. Even 'small vessels' are not to be wasted or discarded because they have a use and serve a purpose in Jacob's sanctification of the world. Hence, he goes back to retrieve his 'small vessels' so as not to waste any spiritual potential that God has granted him in the world.

We all have possessions. We all need to have possessions. But how do we use them? What is our drive for getting them? Do we simply want to feel powerful through the ownership of materialistic things? Or do we use our possessions for spiritual purposes? Do we own anything that we really should not own, even if we will never look at it or derive use from it? The Talmud (Kesubos 19a-b) instructs us not to own even books or contracts that are inaccurate, let alone more spiritually harmful things.

What we own truly does define us. If we would own many Jewish books, even if we would never study from them, it still would say something positive about our values.

And if we own lots of junk in the basement, things we just can't seem to part with, even if we never look at or use them, what does that say about us? Do we merely want to feel that we own and control things -- even things that are useless in our practical lives?

So, anybody for a garage sale next week?