Lessons from Yaakov’s Small Jugs

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Parsha Halacha – Parshat VaYishlach

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In the Torah portion of VaYishlach, we read how Yaakov remained alone while transporting his family across the Yabok River. He was then attacked by a man (actually the angel of Eisav) who wrestled with him until the morning. As the verse says,[1] “And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” The Talmud[2] (quoted in Rashi on the verse) says that Yaakov remained behind because he had forgotten small jugs. (Some say that he had forgotten insignificant items – not necessarily jugs.[3])
Why Jugs?
There are various interpretations as to how we infer from the verse that he remained behind because he had forgotten small jugs. Here are some of them:
  • The previous verse says that he had already carried over “all that was his,” i.e., his important possessions. So the only reason for him to stay behind would be for small items like jugs.[4]
  • The Hebrew word used in the verse (Yaakov stayed) “levado” (alone) is similar to the word “lekado” – for his jug.[5] Levado can also be an allusion for a bad – Hebrew for an olive press and thus an allusion to olive oil which was usually kept in jugs.[6]
  • Clearly, all that Yaakov had left behind were small items that he could take across without the help of his sons. Most small items are usually kept in large chests (when traveling) so that they not get misplaced. But jugs which are constantly being used (for drinking) are not kept in chests. Thus, it is most likely that this is what he forgot and returned to take.[7]
  • The verse says that Yaakov stayed levado (alone). This can be interpreted to mean that he stayed behind for something that he alone needed. This is referring to a jug of oil that he had designated to pour on the altar when he would safely return to Israel (see below for more on this). This would be the fulfillment of the vow he had made twenty years earlier. It is likely that he placed this oil in a small, sealed earthenware jug since such a jug is least susceptible to ritual impurity. Ordinarily, he would never purposefully leave such an important item to the end, so we must say that he forgot it. The reason he was punished by having the angel of Eisav attack him even though he was doing a mitzvah in retrieving this oil is that there was another jug of non-sanctified oil that he was retrieving as well. (This is why the Talmud says that he went back for small jugs — in the plural.) Since his venture was not solely for a mitzvah, he was not protected. [8]
Was it Right?
In the Talmud, Yaakov is praised for returning to retrieve these jugs. The Talmud explains that for tzadikkim (righteous people), their property is more precious than their own bodies. This is because all of their possessions are earned honestly and (therefore) with great toil.
Others find fault in Yaakov’s placing himself in harm’s way for the sake of small items. As the Kli Yakar writes, “Yaakov strayed from his usual character in this excursion. G-d had blessed him with great wealth, property and honor. And Yaakov crossed the line of being satisfied with what he had by staying alone… for the jugs in a dangerous place.” This small sin allowed the Satan (Eisav’s angel) to battle with him and attempt to vanquish him.
The Rabbeinu Bachaye explains that these jugs were important as his children would drink from them. Yaakov therefore endangered himself to retrieve them so that his children not be harmed by not drinking.
Miracle in a Jar
As mentioned above, some say that the one of the jars contained the oil which Yaakov was planning to pour on the altar in Bait El. There is a source[9] that gives us more information about this mysterious jug of oil:
When Yaakov woke up after having the dream of the angels on Mount Moriah,[10] he found a flask of oil near the stone on which he had slept. He poured the oil on that stone which he had set up as a monument to G-d. Miraculously, the flask refilled itself. Realizing that this was a unique flask, he did not leave it there. This oil later became the anointing oil used to anoint the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and all of its artifacts[11] as well as the Jewish kings.[12]Despite having been used so many times, miraculously it is still full and will once again emerge when Moshiach comes.[13] This is the very same flask that the woman of Tzarfat owned and Eliyahu, the prophet, informed her that the oil in the flask would never diminish.[14] This flask later made its way to the hands of the wife of Ovadiah, the convert, whom Elisha informed that when she would pour from it, she would be able to miraculously fill all of the containers she had prepared.[15]
Since Yaakov recognized that this oil was so special, he was willing to risk his life to retrieve it.
The Connection to the Flask of Chanukah
Rav Yisrael Isserlein, of 15th-century Austria, suggests[16] that since Yaakov endangered himself to retrieve this miraculous bottle, G-d rewarded his descendants in the time of Chanukah and allowed them to find the sealed bottle of olive oil that was used to light the Menorah in the Bait HaMikdash which miraculously lasted for eight days.
Some say that the actual flask of Yaakov was the one that was found on Chanukah.[17]
Lessons from Yaakov and the Jug
There are many lessons we can learn from Yaakov’s returning to retrieve the jugs. Here are some of them.
  • Always Double Check
According to the Midrash,[18] Yaakov didn’t actually remember that he had forgotten something. Rather, he went back simply to check if he had forgotten something. This is considered a good trait. The Midrash relates how Rabbi Chiya and Rabbi Shimon the son of Rebbi were once on a business trip to buy fine silk. After they left the city of Tyre they decided to return and check if they had forgotten anything. Indeed, it turns out that they had forgotten a roll of fine silk. When the townspeople asked them where they got the idea to double check before departing, they said that it was from Yaakov.
The commentaries[19] suggest that we must emulate Yaakov’s behavior and always double check ourselves, specifically our behaviors and our attitudes. And then work on overcoming our shortcomings.
  • Use Your Qualities
Yaakov returned to retrieve small jugs because he realized that since they were given to him by G-d, he should not treat them lightly as they were connected to his soul. How much more, one should not waste any G-d given good quality that one has.[20]
  • Don’t Waste. But Do Give Generously to Good Causes
The property of a person is sustenance from G-d that is related to the soul of its owner. One who wastes his property or wealth is disgracing that blessing and causes the Divine flow of blessing to be diminished. This is why tzadikim are so particular to not squander their possessions – except on the performance of mitzvot and giving Tzedaka. One who spends generously on these, will receive a greater Divine blessing.[21]
An Epic, Pre-Messianic Battle
A person’s possessions all contain Divine energy (Kabalisticly referred to as “sparks”) which is connected to one’s soul. Every person is charged with elevating the Divine energy in their possessions by using them for positive things. When Yaakov returned to retrieve his jugs, he did so in order to elevate the Divine energy – related to his soul – that was in those jugs. This was symbolic of the era immediately preceding the Messianic redemption when the Jewish people will be charged with elevating even the smallest “sparks” of Divine energy. This is a preparation for the Messianic era when the entire world will be purified. The angel of Eisav fought with Yaakov in an attempt to stop him from retrieving these jugs symbolizing the forces of evil that are attempting to stop the final preparations of the Jewish people to greet Moshiach.[22]
Just as Yaakov was victorious, so too, may we speedily vanquish the forces of evil, complete our last preparations for Moshiach and merit to experience the Messianic redemption speedily in our days.

[1] Gen. 32:25
[2] Chullin 91a. It is noteworthy that the Talmud says simply that he stayed behind for the (transport of the) small jugs while Rashi on the Chumash says that he forgot the jugs. In Bereishit Rabbah (77:2) it says that he forgot something, but does not specify as to what he forgot. The Mizrachi (a commentary on Rashi) suggests that Rashi based his interpretation on a compound of both the Talmud and the Midrash.
[3] Mizrachi who says that pachim ketanim is sometimes used as an expression to mean small, inexpensive items.
[4] Rashi on ibid, D.H. Shenishtayer
[5] Rabeinu Bachaye and Raboteinu Ba’alei HaTosfot
[6] Ibid
[7] Maharal in Gur Aryeh (a commentary on Rashi)
[8] Devek Tov on Rashi by Rabbi Shimon Oshenburg of 16th Century Frankfurt and Israel.
[9] Shach on the Torah by Rabbi Mordechai Cohen of 16th and 17th Century Tzfat. Rabbi Cohen was a Kabbalist who was a student of Rav Yosef Karro (among others).
[10] Gen. 28:10-22
[11] See Exodus 30:22-33
[12] See Shmuel I, 16:1-13 and in many places
[13] See Tractate Horayot, 11b
[14] See Kings I, 17:8-16
[15] See Kings II, 4:1-7
It is not clear to me how the anointing oil for the Bait HaMikdash and the kings could be used by private individuals for their personal use (see Exodus, 30:33).
[16] Yeri’ot Shlomo, the explanations of Rabbi Yisrael Isserlain on Rashi
[17] This is quoted in many commentaries in the name of the Imrei No’am. I was unable to locate this.
[18] Bereishit Rabbah ibid
[19] See the insights in the Kleinman edition of the Midrash Rabbah by Artscroll Mesorah Publications
[20] The first Gerrer Rebbe, cited in Imrei HaRim on the Parsha
[21] Even HaShoham (based on the teaching of Rav Chaim Vital) Y.D. 249:4 citing Sha’ar HaMitzvot, Parshat Mishpatim, 16a
[22] Or Olam by Reb Moshe Valy, a student of the Ramchal
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom
Aryeh Citron


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