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Yaacov Prayed to Avoid These Tests!

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

When Yaakov is about to leave on the journey to Lavan’s home, he makes the following vow:

“If God will be with me, and He will guard me on this way, upon which I am going, and He will give me bread to eat and a garment to wear; And if I return in peace to my father’s house, and the Lord will be my God; Then this stone, which I have placed as a monument, shall be a house of God, and everything that You give me, I will surely tithe to You.” (Genesis 28, 20-22)

I have always been struck by Yaakov’s desire for bread to eat and clothing to wear. The Sforno (15th and 16th century scholar) commenting on this verse states: “In order that poverty would not coerce him to transgress his will and the will of his creator.” Sforno is explaining that our forefather Yaakov was asking God to protect him from the great test of poverty. Sforno’s words express Yaakov’s main concerns regarding poverty. Poverty limits the choices and options a person has in many scenarios—forcing a person to compromise their own personal standards, morals, and desires. In this sense, poverty is a form of enslavement. Poverty is also a tremendous spiritual test. The temptation to transgress Torah commandments (business laws and other prohibitions) to improve one’s financial position is immense.

Rabbeinu Bachyeh (12th and 13th century scholar) points out that while Yaakov desperately wanted to avoid the test of poverty, he did not request luxuries. Righteous individuals strive to be content with a basic livelihood and do not seek a life of luxury. Rabbeinu Bachyeh explains that just as poverty is spiritually dangerous for a person, excess luxuries are similarly dangerous. Material excess leads a person to become entrenched in physicality and also to become arrogant.

Yaakov’s prayer, which should be our prayer, can be rephrased as follows: “Hashem, please provide me with my basic needs so that I am not dependent on others, and so that I do not transgress Your will. Hashem, please help me to be happy with a basic livelihood so that I do not become overly attached to the physical world, and so that I remain a humble servant before You.”