Parashat Vayishlach begins with the message Yaakov sent to his brother, Eisav, in anticipation of their feared reunion. Yaakov informed Eisav that he had been living with Lavan, during which time he amassed great wealth: “I acquired oxen, donkeys, sheep, servants and maidservants” (32:6).
Rashi cites a counterintuitive interpretation from the Midrash Tanchuma, which explains that Yaakov’s intent in this report was actually to downplay his good fortune. Figuring that Eisav was still angry at Yaakov for “stealing” Yitzchak’s blessing which was intended for Eisav, Yaakov drew Eisav’s attention to the fact that the blessing was unfulfilled. Yitzchak had blessed him that he should enjoy “the dew of the heaven” and “the fat of the earth” (27:28), yet Yaakov received nothing from the heavens or the earth. He acquired only animals, and thus the blessing he received from Yitzchak had not been fulfilled. As such, Eisav had no reason to resent him for scheming to receive the blessings in his stead.
The obvious question arises, did it really matter that Yaakov earned his wealth by amassing large herds of animals, as opposed to fields and orchards producing food? Would Eisav not have reason to envy Yaakov just because his blessings did not take the particular form that Yitzchak had wished for him?
The answer, perhaps, is that the Midrash seeks to demonstrate the tendency people often have to focus on what is missing, to feel dissatisfied even while enjoying great blessings. Yaakov himself, of course, was grateful for his blessings, and felt humbly unworthy of them, as he exclaimed later, in his prayer to God: “I am too small for all the kindnesses…that You have performed for Your servant” (32:11). But the Midrash draws our attention to the fact that another person in Yaakov’s situation might not have felt fortunate, and might have seen only what was missing, the meaninglessly trivial flaw in his great fortune.
More specifically, perhaps, the Midrash shows us that human nature is to feel embittered over that which was expected but not received, regardless of how much blessing one already enjoys. For some people in Yaakov’s situation, the enormous fortune acquired would not have satisfied them, because they were not given what they hoped, or were told, they would receive. The Midrash shows us this skewed perspective to warn against this tendency, to teach us the vitally important message of feeling content, blessed and fortunate even if not all our wishes are fulfilled and not all our expectations are realized. We should focus on all that we have, and not on what we hoped we would have but don’t, and this perspective will help us avoid bitterness and resentment, and enjoy the greatest blessing of all – a feeling of joy and contentment each and every day.