It turns out that to “pay it forward” might have its origins in the Torah.
When someone does something nice for you – say, calls to wish you a happy birthday – you have a choice. You can pay them back, which means to call them on their birthday. Or you can pay it forward, which means to do a favor for someone else entirely. In other words, the first person’s kindness inspires you to pass it on to another.
This week we read in Vayishlach a series of transitions in Jacob’s life. He sends an extravagant gift to his brother Esau in the hopes of reconciling; he divides his family into two camps in case Esau decides to attack; he outlasts a wrestling man/angel and limps away with a new name, Israel; he makes amends with his brother Esau at last.
After this brotherly reconciliation, “Jacob arrived intact (shalem) at the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, upon his arrival from Paddan-Aram. He encamped (vayihan) before the city” (Genesis 33:18).
According to the contextual, or peshat, reading of the verse, the Torah tells us that Jacob arrived safely after a trek. It mentions that Jacob set up camp outside Shechem. These details aren’t exactly riveting.
But the interpretive reading of the verse, the d’rash, speaks of Jacob paying it forward.
Jacob arrived “shalem,” which means “complete, sound, safe.” It’s the same root of the word shalom, peace, because a true peace is total, complete. The midrash explains that Jacob arrived “with his body safe, with his children safe, with his money safe, and with his Torah learning safe” (Beresheet Rabbah 79:5).
The midrash examines these one at a time.
First, Jacob’s body was injured in his bout with the man/angel. Yet God now heals Jacob physically, allowing him to walk without a limp.
Second, Jacob’s family was threatened in the face-off with Esau. Jacob divided the family into two groups as a means of cutting his losses in case Esau decided to attack. Yet Esau offers peace and spares Jacob’s family.
Third, Jacob paid excessively for his gift to his brother, sending him 550 animals. Yet God sees to it that Jacob somehow does not incur a financial loss.
Finally, Jacob neglected Torah study in his 20 years with Laban. Yet he somehow retains his earlier Torah knowledge.
Even though these four pieces of Jacob’s identity were seriously threatened – his body, his family, his finances, and his education – God enables each to recover. Jacob feels abundant gratitude toward God for these blessings and thanks God by setting up an altar and proclaiming God’s name (31:20). Yet he does this only after paying forward God’s kindnesses to others. To understand that, we turn to the Talmud.
Our verse explains that Jacob encamped (vayihan) facing the city. The rabbis make a play-on-word with hen, which means grace. As in, “hen vahesed virachamim” which means “grace, kindness, and mercy.” Understood this way, our verse now means, Jacob was gracious to the city (BT Shabbat 33b).
The rabbis imagine that immediately after his four miracles, Jacob extended his good fortune to the city of Shechem. He established a new currency, marketplaces, and bathhouses for these total strangers, of course none of whom was Jewish. Thus Jacob paid it forward by sharing his gratitude not only with God (back) but with the city of Shechem (forward).
One interesting idea is that Jacob’s four recoveries are the same issues we Americans concern ourselves with on a national scale: health insurance, stable families, good wages, and quality education.
A second idea deals with Chanukah’s upcoming overlap with Thanksgiving. It’s a moment to consider the blessings and gratitude we feel for our own Jewish miracles and pay them forward to a larger group of strangers who could always use our help in different ways. By doing so we would be following Jacob’s model, and as such be in good company. We might even call him forward-thinking.