We’ve all experienced what we call the “night before” jitters before an important appointment, simchah, big test or trip. The rush of adrenalin makes it very hard to sleep. The anticipation is often overwhelming.
So we find Jacob the night before a do-or-die situation – his morning encounter with his brother Esau.
Jacob moves the family across the river and divides them into smaller groups, part of his strategy ahead of the historic meeting early the next day. And yet amid all the tumult, Jacob is nowhere to be found, conspicuous in his absence.
I’d have thought that Jacob, concerned husband and father, would be running from camp to camp throughout the night to comfort his family. His presence would have gone a long way to reassure a very scared group.
Perhaps he was steeped in prayer and meditation or was busy putting the final touches on a strategic battle plan.
Not so! “Vayivater Ya’akov levado” – Jacob went back across the river and remained alone. Rashi explains that he went to retrieve some “pachim ketanim” some small tchatchkes and utensils he had forgotten. Rashi spins this as favourably as possible, explaining that righteous individuals gain their money with utmost honesty and, therefore, see every item purchased with it to be sacred, so even these small items had sanctity and could not be discarded. Thus, Jacob went to fulfil this mitzvah, leaving him stranded overnight.
I would suggest another lesson. Yes, he became isolated. Yes, he was confronted by an adversary, which resulted in a wrestling match that left him limping. But even more compelling is that these very pachim ketanim almost did him in. We came so close to no Jacob, no Israel!
What kept Jacob from his family, from what he should have been doing? His pre-occupation with pachim ketanim – the small stuff almost did him in. Getting stuck on inconsequential stuff leads to isolation, alienation and the crippling of our capacity to succeed where it really counts.
Like us, he loses focus on the real issues of life, namely the well-being of our family and the crucial long term decisions and planning needed in business and family matters. This is the result of our preoccupation with little things that get blown out of proportion. They put us off guard and we lose sight of our real goals as responsible family members and constructive members of a community.
How often has pride or saving face, or a word, tweet, text or action foolishly and hastily said or done, remained our primary focus, thereby allowing relationships and real goals to be lost?
How many times has our insistence on a particular detail – pachim ketanim – killed a good plan or experience? How often have we suffered isolation and alienation just to prove a point? Jacob became Israel when he learned the bitter and painful downside of isolation, and that the world and society exist for more than him alone. He returned home a bit humbled and limping, but he returned to his family and the real issues of the day. The lesson: sweat the big things and forget the small ones. Only then will you accomplish success in life.
Rabbi Mordecai Zeitz is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Tikvah Ahavat Shalom Nusach Hoari in Montreal.