Parashat VaYese: The Two Tests
The Midrash relates that when Yaakob left his parents’ home to flee from his brother, Esav, who wanted to kill him in revenge for his "stealing" Yishak’s blessings, Esav instructed his son, Elifaz, to run after Yaakob and murder him. Esav made Elifaz swear that he would fulfill this mission. Elifaz consulted with his mother, Timna, who advised him not to obey Esav’s command. She warned him that Yaakob was very strong, and Elifaz could be killed if he tried launching an assault on Yaakob. Elifaz was in a quandary, as he wanted to fulfill his father’s wish, to which he was bound by oath, but he also feared for his life. The solution was that Yaakob gave Elifaz all his money and everything he had with him. An impoverished person is considered as though he is "dead," and thus by taking Yaakob’s money, Elifaz was considered as having fulfilled his father’s command without actually killing Yaakob. And thus Yaakob arrived at Haran, where he would stay for twenty years, penniless, without any belongings at all. With Hashem’s help, however, he was able to amass a huge fortune working for his wily uncle, Laban, and he returned to Eretz Yisrael a very wealthy man.
We might wonder why things needed to happen this way. Why did Yaakob have to become penniless before earning wealth? Why did G-d arrange that Yaakob would arrive in Haran without a dime to his name, if he was destined to become wealthy?
The Ketab Sofer (Rav Avraham Shemuel Binyamin Sofer, 1815-1871) explains that there are two basic spiritual tests that people face in life: the test of poverty, and the test of wealth. An impoverished man is tempted to lose faith, to question G-d’s justice, to betray G-d out of anger and resentment over his plight, and to steal in order to sustain himself. At the same time, however, wealth also poses difficult tests. Wealthy people can easily become arrogant and conceited, and look down on other people. Also, while a poor person understands human fragility and how we are all dependent on G-d’s grace, the wealthy man is prone to feel self-sufficient and independently capable of caring for himself, without any sense of dependence on the Almighty’s kindness and compassion. Yaakob Abinu passed both these tests at both stages of his life. After losing all his money to Elifaz, he still did not lose his faith, and when he returned to Eretz Yisrael as a wealthy man, he remained fully devoted and loyal to G-d.
This is why Yaakov had to endure poverty before being blessed wealth. "Ma’aseh Abot Siman La’banim" – the actions of our patriarchs serve as a model and blueprint for us, their descendants. By successfully passing both tests – the test of poverty and the test of wealth – Yaakob paved the way for us to pass both these tests. He set for us the example and precedent that we need throughout our lives – both in good times, and in times of hardship. We look to Yaakob for inspiration during life’s darker moments, as he reminds us to retain our faith and rely on G-d’s kindness and assistance, as well as during periods of joy and success, as he reminds us to remain humble and ever cognizant of our dependence on the Almighty for everything.