Parashat Vayishlah

Small Vessels

Jacob views material possessions as essential and indispensable.

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The Sefer HaChinuch helps explain what motivated Jacob's exceptional effort to save a few vessels: to love and cling to what is good in the world, and to avoid waste of any degree.

In this vein, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the command "do not destroy," is "the most comprehensive warning to human beings not to misuse the position that God has given them as masters of the world and its matter to capricious, passionate, or merely thoughtless wasteful destruction of anything on earth." He elaborates on this in his book Horeb by means of a hypothetical statement of God's:

"Only if you use the things around you for wise human purposes, sanctified by the word of My [God's] teaching, only then are you a mensch and have the right over them which I have given you as a human…However, if you destroy, if you ruin, at that moment you are not a human…and have no right to the things around you. I lent them to you for wise use only; never forget that I lent them to you. As soon as you use them unwisely, be it the greatest or the smallest, you commit treachery against My world, you commit murder and robbery against my property, you sin against Me!"

Conspicuous Consumption

Jacob's re-crossing of the stream exposes a striking contrast between two worldviews on material possessions. One sees the things we own as essential and indispensable; the other views them as expendable and disposable.        

For us, living in a world of abundance where it is so easy to throw things away, Jacob's example presents a particular challenge. In 1955, the retailing analyst Victor Lebow highlighted a trend in consumer society away from greater mindfulness regarding possessions and toward a more short-term view. He wrote:

"Our enormously productive economy…demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption…We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate (The Journal of Retailing)."

The trend he describes has only become more pronounced in the half-century since Lebow wrote these words. We throw away useable items because they are a few years old and maybe outdated by new products; we discard clothing and appliances and buy new ones instead of repairing them; and we commonly buy goods wrapped in disposable packaging. 

Little Things Matter

Our relationship with the resources we consume has significant consequences for the planet. Most of the big things that happen in the world are really just the consequences of a lot of small things put together. A global consensus of scientists has stated that human actions are changing the climate balance on earth, with likely negative impacts for human civilization. They foresee more intense storms and floods, shifting disease vectors, and sea level rise threatening hundreds of millions of people in low-lying areas.

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Jonathan Neril

Jonathan Neril is the project manager of the Jewish Environmental Parsha Initiative. He is a rabbinical student in his fourth year of Jewish learning in Israel. He received an MA and BA at Stanford with a focus on global environmental issues.