We read in Parashat Vayishlach of Yaakov’s impassioned prayer to God in advance of his dreaded reunion with his brother, Eisav, whom he feared would seek to kill him and his family. In this prayer, Yaakov avows his unworthiness of all the blessings which God had bestowed upon him: “I am undeserving of all the kindnesses and all the truth which You have done for Your servant, for I crossed this Jordan [River] with my staff, and now I have become two camps” (32:11).
Rashi explains that Yaakov was saying, “I had with me neither silver, gold, nor cattle, but only my staff.” Meaning, Yaakov embarked on his journey to Charan with nothing other than a walking stick, and he was now returning to Canaan with a very large family and very large herds of cattle. Rashi then cites a startling interpretation of this verse from the Midrash: “He placed his staff in the Jordan, and the Jordan split.” According to this reading, when Yaakov said, “be-makli avarti et ha-Yardein ha-zeh” – “I crossed this Jordan [River] with my stick,” he meant, quite literally, that he crossed with his stick, that his stick enabled him to cross the river, as it miraculously split the waters. This description, of course, brings to mind the miraculous splitting of the Sea of Reeds, which occurred when Moshe lifted his staff over the water (Shemot 14:27), as well as the miraculous splitting of the Jordan River when Benei Yisrael entered the Land of Israel in Yehoshua’s time (Yehoshua 3:15-16).
How might we approach this Midrashic depiction of Yaakov splitting the Jordan River with his staff? It is quite clear that Yaakov speaks of his state of poverty at the time he crossed the river, contrasting his possessing just a staff at that moment with the large family and large fortune that he brought with him now as he headed back home. Why would the Midrash read into this verse an allusion to his miraculously splitting the river?
Perhaps, the Midrash seeks to teach us never to underestimate our ability to achieve even when we feel we have only a “staff.” Yaakov found himself destitute, with nothing but a stick, but this stick proved to be a precious commodity, capable of splitting a river. Even when it seems we have little, we should feel blessed and try to recognize the great value of even the little we have. Every possession we own is precious if it is utilized the right way. This is true not only of material possessions, but also of our natural skills and talents. Even if we feel we have only a “staff,” that we have very limited capabilities, in truth, that “staff” we have been given can be used to create, to build, to impact and to produce. We have all been endowed with gifts which, if used properly, can “split rivers,” can make meaningful and important contributions. We should therefore celebrate, cherish and recognize every blessing we have been given, down to our simple “staffs,” and try to use them all in the best way possible so we can achieve to the full extent of our God-given potential.