The parasha reveals to us Ya'akov's –Jacob's attitude to money and material possessions. He brings his family and his possessions to the other side of the Yabok stream and then realizes that he has forgotten some פחים קטנים = small earthen pitchers and returns to fetch them. The Sages learn from this that to the righteous, their money is dearer to them than their bodies, and they are willing to suffer or endure bodily discomfort for sake of insignificant or trivial objects and the reason for this is that they don't steal from others. R' Isaac Sher asks that this may be a good explanation for a poor man, but Jacob returned from Haran as an incredibly wealthy man, and needing something that belongs to others or being enticed by material goods was simply out of the question. In fact, we later find that Jacob was not so attached to his money and was pretty liberal in giving away all the gold and silver coins he had earned in Haran in order to buy from Esau – Eisav, Eisav's share in the Ma'arat Hamachpeilah burial site in Chevron. R' Isaac Sher answers that we have to make an effort to earn a living in an honest way , but in reality what we earn is a gift from God, a gift of the opportunity to make a contribution and make the world a more spiritual place. So if we lose things or even misuse our material possessions we are in fact stealing from God. We have become responsible for losing our chance and opportunity to realize the purpose of these possessions.Money is dearer to us than our bodies, because we are much more powerful people and can do a lot of good with money, much more than our bodies. Of course , this does not mean we don't have to be careful about our health, there is a biblical commandment to do so, it just gives us a perspective about money , that money can be a powerful tool in the creation of spirituality and good in the world.
There is another explanation why material possessions are so significant. Since every penny is diligently and honestly earned and the righteous avoid even a suggestion of dishonesty, these objects are not only dear to them but also as in Jacob's case, the pitchers acquired spiritual value and became the bearers of holiness.
An attitude to money is very significant to a religious person - not only should he be careful to be honest in his dealings and not steal but he should not be involved in the pursuit of wealth - re'difat ha'mamon ' .In fact, one has to repent not only for inappropriate actions –like stealing but also for characteristics and life style that is focused on the pursuit of wealth, no matter how honest one is, because these characteristics are contrary to a spiritual and contributing life.
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot says if there is no flour, there is no Torah. Money can be a very powerful tool in creating spirituality, spiritual experiences and making a contribution to the world. Likewise – if there is no Torah there is no flour - it is the Torah that gives value to money and the reason for God to share his abundance with man. The question Eric Fromm asks us is whether we are ' TO BE or TO HAVE' people–using the material to create experiences and focus on ' being ' or do we focus on getting and having - getting status or getting pleasure and being entertained by the material world . So a poor person can very easily be a TO HAVE person , while a rich person can be a TO BE person. We can also have a materialistic attitude to mitzvoth and focus not on the experience and process but on collecting mitzvoth.
In education, teachers and parents think they are promoting learning or acts of kindness if they motivate kids with prizes, rewards, grades or even verbal rewards such as praise. Instead we are motivating kids to get more prizes and see the learning or kindness, not as intrinsically valuable but a means to an end - to get a good job, make an impression, fame and candy etc . Kids become addicted to these extrinsic motivators, so kids won't learn if it is not on the test or won't be graded, and before they do anything– they ask what will I get for it. They see everything in contractual or economic terms and it is hard for us to wean them off rewards. In the words of the behavioral economist Dan Ariely parents and teachers are guilty of converting ' social norms' into ' economic norms'. They are promoting materialism and immoral behavior at the expense of spirituality and connection.
A school tried to encourage kids to return lost articles or money found in school or on the playground by rewarding kids for handing in lost property. All of a sudden, kids were finding lots of coins on the playground.
A kindergarten imposed fines on parents who came late to pick up their kids. The situation became much worse after the imposition of the fines. Previously parents were guided by ' social norms' – a guilty feeling and 'conscience ' about keeping the kindergarten teacher or kid waiting , now it was purely an ' economic ' decision – was it worth the money to come late.
A man, who was about to go overseas for while approached his neighbor's 10 year old son. He needed help with his dog. He asked the boy to look after his dog and take him for walks etc while he was away on holiday.
He asked the kid - How much? The kid replied – ' I am willing to pay $15.
This is really the behavior and values we want from kids. They should be willing to spend time and money to make a contribution and create spirituality thus converting material into spiritual, converting economic norms into spiritual norms.
So instead of rewarding a kid with candy for leading the prayers in the synagogue when he sings ' a'nim zemirot ', I recommend that we give the candy before he sings. We thus give the mitzvah an association with happiness, he does the mitzvah with joy and happiness and he is left with an inner pride and feeling of spiritual satisfaction. We have not converted this spiritual feeling and intrinsic reward for singing into a physical reward such as a candy.
Jacob was careful not to waste or squander his possessions because they are opportunities to do good in the world. He certainly was not attached to money and converted money into spirituality by buying Eisav- Esau's share in the ' ma'arat ha'machpeilah ' burial site in Chevron.
Our purpose in this world is to convert ' economic norms' – materialism into 'social and spiritual norms'. We can do this by understanding that the reward of a good deed is the deed itself - the experience and the opportunity given to us by God to do further good. We can help kids by cutting out ' rewards ', less focus on grades and credits and help them become more self-directed, connected to learning and intrinsically motivated focusing on the process and experience, on ' being and not having'.