One of the unique and beautiful characteristics of Jewish life is in how our traditions honor and commemorate the past. Each year, we celebrate our holidays as Jews have done for generations, with the same customs, mitzvos, foods, and even the same central themes and lessons to be learned. Yet, the Nesivos Shalom explains that the Jewish calendar is like a spiral; it is not merely a yearly cycle where, for 100 years of a person’s life, one encounters the same holidays and traditions and goes through the motions. Rather, each year, we take away a new meaning, or apply a lesson learned many times over in a new way.
Rav Wolbe explains that a similar concept is found in spiritual development. Every person has certain central Middos that are integral to who he is, and with which he will be challenged throughout his life. When you consider your relationships, the challenges you often face, or when you look back on your year each year before Rosh Hashana, what do you notice? Likely, you’ve had the experience of thinking, “has nothing changed? Why am I always challenged in this same area?” While this can be disheartening, it is actually growth occurring in real time. Rav Wolbe explains that we are challenged in similar ways in order to hone and perfect particular Middos throughout our lives.
The upshot of all of this is that growth, on both a personal and national level, is derived from exploration into and careful examination of the past. Through recognizing and evaluating our past experiences, we can learn important lessons, integrate our triumphs and struggles into our narratives, and use our past to inform both our present and our future.
In this week’s Parsha, Yaakov Avinu exemplifies this idea in multiple ways. First, enigmatically, Yaakov goes back over the Yabok River for what Rashi (32:25) calls Pachim Ketanim, small jugs. While this may seem absurd, given Yaakov’s later insistence that “Yesh Li Kol,” Rashi notes that this teaches us that Tzadikim truly value their material goods, in order to refrain from stealing. While there are multiple lessons to be learned from this idea regarding gratitude, satisfaction with one’s life and belongings, and a Torah approach to materialism, there is also something deeper going on here aside from Yaakov noticing these jugs missing from his inventory.
I heard a beautiful idea from my friend Rachi Goldman that highlights the deeper meaning to Yaakov’s actions. When we analyze the pesukim further, Yaakov’s return for these small jars is quite curious. When Lavan accuses Yaakov of stealing the idols from his home, Yaakov becomes seemingly defensive, asking rhetorically (Vayeitzei, 31:36) whether Lavan found anything in Yaakov’s possession from his home. It seems that Yaakov left Lavan’s house, and anything related to it, behind. And yet, he returns for these Pachim Ketanim. Perhaps, in actuality, Yaakov returns for these items because they are a reminder of his recent past, of where he is coming from, and he must take his past with him as he sets out to become the father of Klal Yisrael.
Chazal tell us that the Pachim Ketanim are not only symbolic of Yaakov’s past, they are also a reference to his children’s future: specifically, the small Pach Shemen that the Jews miraculously found in the Beis HaMikdash, which lasted for eight days and led to one of the central miracles of the Chanukah story. Through looking back at our history, we see that even within the stories of our Avos and Imahos are the foundation stones for our national history; the past is rich with meaning and information.
As a more tangible manifestation of this idea, we see that Yaakov, before becoming Yisrael, before all twelve of his sons are born, must face and grapple with his more distant personal past, as well. When Yaakov returns to get the Pachim Ketanim, he encounters the Sar Shel Eisav, and then Eisav himself. Yaakov’s history with Eisav, his buying the Bechorah and tricking Yitzchak in order to get the blessings, are a part of who he is, and before he sets out to continue his life, to complete his family, he must grapple with these past realities.
In our lives, we are constantly challenged with people, events, relationships, and disappointments or triumphs that trigger similar feelings, that touch on familiar nerves, that push well-worn buttons. It is part of true growth, to be challenged again and again, to hone our Middos as one would sharpen a spear against the grindstone over, and over, and over. And yet, if we are not able to look back at the past, to not only take those experiences with us, perhaps place them in a box, or on a self, but face those experiences, take them out, turn them over, analyze them from all angles, we will not truly understand who we are and where we come from. We will become frustrated with the seemingly repetitive nature of our lives, rather than recognizing the specially-designed workout and growth plan that God has orchestrated for us.
As a nation, we return to these worn out footpaths of growth by learning each year from our Chagim, looking into our past and being able to walk away with something new to inform our present and future. As individuals, we can do this by taking time to understand our past experiences, not to simply “let it go,” and insist that “the past is in the past.” Rather, go back for those Pachim Ketanim, those experiences that shaped you. While it may not be healthy to spend an excessive amount of time reliving or analyzing each of those memories each day, take them with you. Every so often, sit and sift through them.
Importantly, recognize that if, like Yaakov, you do this alone (32:25), it is very likely that you will be fighting demons. Reach out, and seek support. And in your struggle, you will become Godly. The Birkas Asher, Rav Asher Wassertheil zt”l, beautifully notes that this experience that Yaakov had made all the difference in his growth and advancement to becoming the father of the Jewish people. In fact, the difference between Yisrael (Gematria 541) and Yaakov (Gematria 182) lies in the Pachim Ketanim (Gematria 359).
While often daunting and difficult, it is in going back for those things, even the small things, that built us that we find the courage and meaning and fortitude to become who we are meant to be.