We read in Parashat Vayishlach of the mysterious man – commonly identified as Esav’s angel – who attacked Yaakov as he made his way back to Canaan from Charan. The Torah gives virtually no information regarding the background of this fight, stating simply, “Va-yivater Yaakov levado” – Yaakov found himself alone at one point while journeying with his family (32:25). The Gemara in Masekhet Chulin (91a) famously explains this to mean that after Yaakov brought his family across the Yabok stream, he went back to retrieve “pakhim ketanim” – small jugs that had been left on the other side.
Much has been written and said about the Gemara’s comment and the message it seeks to convey. Among the more surprising approaches taken to explain the Gemara’s remark is presented by the Keli Yakar, in his commentary here in Parashat Vayishlach. The Keli Yakar contends that Chazal criticize Yaakov for endangering himself by crossing a stream alone during the dark of night to retrieve “pakhim ketanim” – small, insignificant possessions. He should have simply left these items where they were rather than go through the trouble of retrieving them, whereby he exposed himself to danger. The Keli Yakar goes so far as to claim that Yaakov was attacked as a punishment for this mistake of showing inordinate concern for “pakhim ketanim.”
The question arises as to how we might reconcile the Keli Yakar’s comments with the conclusion of this passage in the Gemara. After establishing that Yaakov returned to retrieve “pakhim ketanim,” the Gemara writes, “From here [we may infer] that the money of righteous people is more precious to them than their bodies…because they do not thrust their hands into stolen goods.” It appears that the Gemara views Yaakov’s conduct not as an aberration, a mistake made by an otherwise righteous man, but rather as characteristic of tzadikim, who pay careful attention to protecting their financial assets. Given their strict ethical standards, righteous people are at a disadvantage as they seek to secure a livelihood, and they must therefore ensure not to lose any property. How could the Gemara have reached this conclusion about tzadikim from Yaakov’s conduct if that conduct was improper and aberrant?
Apparently, the Keli Yakar understood that the Gemara was not lauding a noble practice of the tzadikim, but rather warning about a potential pitfall into which they are prone to falling. Strict, scrupulous honesty is a challenge not only because one must avoid the temptation to profit through deceitful conduct, but also because one feels pressured to protect his assets. The Keli Yakar perhaps read the Gemara to mean that tzadikim, more so than others, must struggle against the instinct to obsess over money specifically because they are more limited in their opportunities to acquire it. Yaakov’s mistake of endangering himself for “pakhim ketanim” is one which any scrupulously honest person can make, given the pressure to earn an honest living. We are therefore warned not only to avoid dishonesty in the pursuit of assets, but also to avoid unhealthy obsession over the assets we have already acquired, and to maintain a careful balance between sensible caution and responsibility, on the one hand, and frantic preoccupation, on the other.