Traditionally, when one thinks of religion, or religious people, one thinks of removal from the world. The classic idea of a sadik – a righteous individual – is one who is unswayed by the temptations of material life, focused instead on the world to come. These rarified people live their lives in another world, uninterested in what our very human world has to offer.
There is a saying in Judaism, based on a rabbinic statement in Genesis Rabbah, which states “the actions of fathers are a sign for their sons” – מעשה אבות סימן לבנים. Those actions performed by our forefathers, specifically Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, serve as pathways, paradigms for us, their descendants. Close examination of those forefathers reveals much about caring, interpersonal relationships and connection to God, amongst other things. Indeed, an area in which we can learn a surprising amount is that which deals with our ideal relationship to this material world.
When God tells Abraham that he is meant to leave his hometown, he makes a series of promises to him about his future, “And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2). The rabbis interpret the phrase “and I will bless you” as meaning with money, physical wealth (Genesis Rabbah 39:11). Later, when Avraham is forced by famine to travel to Egypt, he suggests hiding his wife in plain sight – as his sister. “Please say [that] you are my sister, in order that it go well with me because of you, and that my soul may live because of you” (Genesis 12:13). Interestingly, yet in keeping with our theme, Rashi comments on the verse and says that “in order that it go well with me because of you” means that he will receive gifts! Amazingly, Avraham puts gifts and money before his wife!
This week’s reading tells us of Jacob fighting the angel, receiving a blow on his thigh, coming away from the battle maimed. In what is a dramatic story, one full of high drama and deep concepts, it is easy to overlook the *reason* Jacob was even in a position to fight the angel at all! “And he took them and brought them across the stream, and he took across what was his. And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn” (Genesis 32:25). Based on two rabbinical sources (TB Ḥullin 91a, Genesis Rabbah 77:2), Rashi comments that he remained alone, as he had returned to gather some small jars that he had left behind! Amazingly, the Talmud in Ḥullin continues, “ Hence [it is learned] that to the righteous their money is dearer than their body.” Jacob seemingly risked his life for the sake of some small change!
The sages are keen to draw out a message here, both in the story of Abraham and the story of Jacob. In “religious” life, it is easy to get caught up in “the next world” and cease living in this one. We learn from our patriarchs, through our sages, that contrary to popular religious belief, engagement in this world is paramount! It is only through this world, through engagement with God’s world, that we can come to really know God! Money, material wealth, worldliness, education; all enable us to more richly and fully experience God, and his work of art called Creation. Engagement in the world around us, in the correct framework, was paramount to our forefathers and to our sages alike. Incredibly, a Torah scholar is enjoined to be engaged in this world to the point of making sure that his dress is appropriate and clean; “R. Hiyya b. Abba also said in R. Johanan’s name: Any scholar upon whose garment a [grease] stain is found is worthy of death…” (TB Shabbat 114a).
We can learn from our forefathers and from our sages; it is only through engagement in the world, real, proper, respectful engagement, that we can come to a more complete understanding of God and His work. We must always remember: the author of the Torah is also the author of the World.