A Penny Has The Same Status as a Hundred Gold Coins
On the verse, “Jacob was left alone” (Genesis 32:25), the Sages state: “Rabbi Eleazar said, ‘He remained behind for the sake of some small jars.’ Hence to the righteous, their money is dearer than their body. Why is this? It is because they do not stretch out their hands to robbery” (Chullin 91a).
Let us try and imagine what was happening to Jacob at that point. He had already crossed the Jabbok with all his children, when suddenly he realized that he had forgotten some jars on the other side. What did he do? He returned alone to get them. Is that possible? Was it not dangerous to go there alone at night? The Sages have said that a Talmid Chacham is forbidden to venture outside alone at night. Therefore why did Jacob do so? The answer is that the Holy One, blessed be He, created man with two parts. One is his soul, a spark of divinity, completely spiritual and devoid of materiality. The other is his body, the material aspect of man. Nevertheless, it is forbidden to think that the body has no value, or that it is permissible to harm it or make it suffer in any way. Not at all. The body is a very effective tool that enables an individual to do good deeds, serve Hashem, study Torah, and perform mitzvot.
All this allows us to understand a teaching of our Sages: “The righteous in their death are called living. …The wicked in their lifetime are called dead” (Berachot 18a-b). Since the wicked do not use their bodies to perform mitzvot, they may be considered as being dead. As for the righteous, who always put their bodies to use in accomplishing mitzvot, they continually elevate themselves in the supernal world, in Gan Eden, and not only while alive, but also while dead. This is why they are called living even when their physical bodies are dead. Everyone knows, however, that some mitzvot are absolutely impossible to accomplish with simply the body alone. If someone does not have money, there are many mitzvot he cannot do. These include purchasing matzah for Passover, buying the four species for Sukkot, giving to charity, and many others. These all require a person to have money. This is why the Sages say that since the Tzaddikim desire to accomplish all the mitzvot to perfection, without missing a single one, money is more important to them than their bodies. This is due to the fact that with money, they can accomplish all the mitzvot without exception.
Such was the way of Jacob. He did not relinquish a single penny, not even small jars that people sometimes treat carelessly. He wanted to have all his possessions in order to perform the mitzvot, which is why he returned to the other side of the river to recover some small jars. Because he wanted to accomplish all the mitzvot that depend on money, he was not even afraid to go out alone at night. The “money” in this case consisted of those small jars. Hence he did not abandon them, but instead returned for them.
My fellow Jews, our father Jacob is teaching us a great lesson by this.
Unfortunately, today there are many people who disparage what may seem like, at least to them, a small amount of money, treating it as being almost worthless. We often hear people everywhere – be it in the home, the synagogue, or the street – saying, “What’s a few pennies? What’s a few dollars?” Sometimes we even hear, “What’s a few hundred dollars?” What is happening here? Is it impossible to perform mitzvot with just a small amount of money? Can a person not give to charity even if he has only fifty cents in his pocket? As everyone knows, coins are round. One day I may own them, and the next day you may own them. Why scorn this “small change”? Even for a mitzvah that may be performed with just a few pennies, it is said: “Man enjoys its fruits in this world, while the principle remains in the World to Come” (Kiddushin 40a).
Each person is obligated to learn from the deeds of the holy Patriarchs. Money was more precious to them than their bodies, since with money they could perform mitzvot. It is not without reason that the Sages said, “A lawsuit involving a mere penny must be regarded as having the same importance as one involving a hundred gold coins” (Sanhedrin 8a), for a mitzvah can be performed with just a few pennies. The Sages have also said, “Whoever gives a penny to the poor receives a blessing,” not “Whoever gives tens of dollars,” for even a few pennies have enormous importance.
In addition, we can draw another lesson from Jacob’s actions, one that will enable us to emulate him. There are some people who, unfortunately, only want to please others. Hence when they see an opportunity to perform a “great” mitzvah, off they go running to do it. Donating money for the construction of a large Torah edifice so that their names will appear on the building in large letters, that is perfectly acceptable to them. However when it comes to a small mitzvah – such as a small gesture of kindness that will go unnoticed – this is not so pleasing to them, and we do not see them running to accomplish it. They avoid such mitzvot; indeed, they flee from them.
Jacob returned even for tiny jars. He did not neglect even a small mitzvah, but instead endeavored to accomplish it. From Jacob’s example, each of us must realize that a person has to put an effort into accomplishing even minor mitzvot. At that point we will have a good reward in this world and the World to Come.