We read in Parashat Vayeitze that after the twenty years Yaakov spent with his uncle, Lavan, during which time he married Lavan’s daughters and tended to his flocks, Yaakov took his family and possessions and left to return to his homeland. Lavan chased after Yaakov, and when he caught up to him, a tense exchange ensued, with Lavan protesting Yaakov’s leaving without informing him, and Yaakov responding by protesting the way he had been treated. Yaakov ended his monologue by saying, “If not that the God of my father…were with me, you would have now sent me away emptyhanded; God saw my torment and the toil of my hand, as proven last night” (31:42). The final phrase – “as proven last night” (“va-yokhach amesh”) – refers to the dream Lavan beheld the previous night, in which God warned him not to hurt Yaakov (31:24). Lavan himself, upon reaching Yaakov, indicated that he would have killed Yaakov if not for this prophetic dream (31:29).
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 74:12) observes that Yaakov here speaks of God’s assistance in two respects – in saving him from poverty, and in saving him from harm. First, he mentions that he would have left Lavan penniless if not for “the God of my father,” which the Midrash understands as a reference to “zekhut avot” – the merits one receives from his parents and previous generations. Then, Yaakov says that God intervened to prevent Lavan from causing him physical harm, in the merit of “my torment and my toil” – referring to Yaakov’s dedication and tireless efforts as he worked shepherding Lavan’s flocks, which Yaakov describes in the previous verses (31:38-41). The Midrash thus establishes, “Work is more precious than the merit of one’s parents – for the merit of parents rescued money, while work rescued life.” Yaakov attributes his financial success to “the God of my father,” the merit of his forebears, and he attributes his protection from Lavan’s murderous scheme to his hard work – indicating that hard work is more precious than “zekhut avot.” Hard work saved Yaakov’s life, whereas his “zekhut avot” enabled him to earn money despite Lavan’s devious schemes.
The message conveyed by the Midrash, it would seem, is that accomplishments earned through hard work and effort are more precious than that which we receive without personal initiative. We are all the beneficiaries of “zekhut avot” – certain gifts, opportunities and advantages that we received by virtue of our background and upbringing, the conditions in which we entered this world and were raised. These benefits are all significant and should be exploited to their very fullest, but the Midrash reminds us that our success and achievement in life depend far more on our hard work. No “zekhut avot,” nothing we receive automatically from our parents or from the circumstances in which we were raised, obviates the need for the exertion of effort. Anything we hope to accomplish requires hard work, notwithstanding the blessings and good fortune granted to us through “zekhut avot.”