Vayishlach – Much Vs. All

One might not expect the key to happiness to be hidden in the meeting of Yaakov and Esav recounted in the parsha. But it’s there. 

When Yaakov explains the lavish gifts he had sent ahead to his twin, the latter demurs, at least perfunctorily, and says, “I have much [already].”  Yaakov insists that Esav receive his gifts since “I have all [I need]” (Beraishis 33:9, 33:11).

Those focused on material wealth as providing happiness, explains the Kli Yakar on those sentences, can only ever claim to have “much,” not “all.” For, satisfaction will always be elusive. As Chazal say, “One who has one hundred wants 200)” (Koheles Rabbah 1:34).

In 1971, social scientists Philip Brickman and Donald T. Campbell coined the term “hedonic treadmill” to refer to the fact that, as a person makes more money or collects more possessions, expectations and desires rise in tandem, resulting in no permanent gain in happiness.

Happiness is born, rather, of an attitude, that of “I have all.” Whatever one has. “Who is wealthy?” Ben Zoma asks in Avos (4:1), and answers: “He who rejoices in what he has.” 

The mussar giant R’ Elya Lopian offered an enlightening parable based on the pasuk “Those who seek Hashem lack no good thing”  (Tehillim 34:11):

A man tells a visitor to his home how fortunate he is to be wealthy, and presents a cornucopia of expensive medications he has been able to amass to treat his many ailments.  The guest smiles inside at his own fortune – to have no need for any of the medications in the first place.

One can step onto the hedonic treadmill and spend one’s life fulfilling – or trying to fulfill – one’s material desires. But, just as it’s better to be healthy than to be sick even with a full medicine cabinet, so is it better to be happy with one’s lot rather than spending life in a never-ending spiral of striving. 

Those who seek to serve Hashem lack nothing. Their perspective on life and why they were created provides them the understanding that, whatever they have, they have everything. 

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

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