It’s the Little Things
After sending a gift ahead for Esav, in advance of their anticipated reunion, Yaakov returns to the task of moving his family – no simple matter, with four wives, eleve
nsons and at least one daughter, and all their animals and belongings. Bereishit 32:23 tells us that Yaakov brought his family across Nachal Yabok, and in the next verse, ויעבר את אשר לו – he brought his possessions across as well.
It is not clear why, after that, Yaakov “remained alone” (v. 25), such that he encountered a “man” with whom he wrestled until daybreak. What kept Yaakov back after bringing his family and possessions across the river?
Last, but not least
A peshat-oriented commentator might not be bothered by this question, or might simply say that Yaakov planned to cross after supervising the crossing of his household, except that he got detained.
On the other hand, R’ Elazar, in Chullin 91a, offers an oft-taught midrashic answer: “He remained because of pachim ketanim (small pitchers). From here [we learn] that the money (i.e., physical possessions) of the righteous is dear to them, more than their bodies (i.e., lives) – and why so much? Because they don’t stretch out their hands in theft.”
Like most midrashic explanations, this one goes a step further than simply filling in a gap in the narrative; typically, the midrash wants us to glean a message, to learn something deeper from those gaps.
In this case, R’ Elazar suggests the point to notice is that Yaakov cared even about his minor possessions, the small pitchers (or perhaps “small items” more generally; see R. Eliyahu Mizrachi). While this might seem like a criticism – the righteous Yaakov cares so much about something so mundane?! – R’ Elazar points out that there is indeed a deeper value here: People are human, and need human things – and if we don’t maintain our things, the temptation can be strong to dip into others’ things.
The phrasing here is telling: he doesn’t say “so they don’t steal,” but “so they don’t stretch out their hands in theft.” How many ways might a human, who needs human things, find to justify dishonest ways of obtaining them? But the righteous won’t have any of it: they are well aware that they are susceptible to this human risk, and remain diligent about what does belong to them in order to ensure their needs are filled and thereby guard against that temptation – a worthy model for us all.
The roots of midrash
From the other direction, as with any midrashic explanation, we might want to know not just where the midrash is going with the idea (the lesson to learn), but where it came from: How does R’ Elazar know this is why Yaakov remained alone? Where does he get the idea of pachim ketanim?
While it is always possible that a particular midrashic explanation comes from tradition, handed down over centuries from teacher to student, typically we can uncover a textual root/motivation for such interpretations. Rashi, in his commentary on the Gemara, finds an indication in the verse: Yaakov had already transferred “את אשר לו,” which Rashi takes to mean the important items; if something kept him back, it must have been the smaller things – those negligible enough to be ignored in a general reference to “that which belonged to him.”
As anyone who has ever moved knows, there is always detritus remaining after the books and furniture and large pots and pans have been loaded into the truck and it seems that “the house is packed up.” These items are not quite garbage – in fact, the Maharal (in his Gur Aryeh commentary on Rashi) suggests the pachim were specifically the small items used most frequently, which therefore couldn’t be packed in advance – and typically, the homeowner will remain behind to collect those items.
What kind of messages matter?
Interpretations of this midrash abound, including intricate, lofty explanations that tie together Yaakov’s pachim ketanim with other pachim in our history and uncover allusions to epic themes.
But the very mundane portrayal here, of a man moving his family and dealing with the leftover junk at the end, should not be discounted. It is from considering our biblical heroes as people, and their lives and moves as similar to our own, that we can best identify with, relate to, and learn from them. (See Rav Hirsch on Bereishit 12:10.) As the mystically-minded, yet apparently eminently practical, Maharal writes: “Since the Torah doesn’t elaborate on ‘and Yaakov remained alone’…it is upon us to fix it on what makes the most sense” – such as that Yaakov Avinu was collecting the toothbrushes.