November 30th-December 1st, 2001
16 Kislev, 5762
LET’S GET SMALL!
One of my teachers, Rabbi Beryl Gershenfeld (whom I mentioned a couple of weeks ago) used to admonish us not to take lightly even the most seemingly inconsequential note of the great biblical commentator,
Rashi. A potentially life-changing insight is contained there, he would tell us.
If that’s true for the words of Rashi, then it is certainly the case when it comes to the words of the Torah itself. There is so much to learn from even its smallest details. A certain word or phrase, an extra letter, a seemingly redundant clause, a mere "figure of speech"--they all can be conveyors of gargantuan moral lessons. The word, "Torah," means "instruction," after all, and the Great Instructor had much that he thought we Jews needed to know to lead lives of holiness. And to help us draw out that precious
life-changing wisdom from the smallest words or phrases, we turn to our Sages and the great Torah commentators.
Let’s look briefly at an example from this week’s Torah portion. An entire Jewish philosophy lecture…in 10 words or less.
Ya’akov is returning to Eretz Yisrael after two decades of exile spent working in the home of his deceitful uncle, Lavan (and building a sizeable family). He is immediately confronted with another challenge (and threat): his brother, Esav, whose murderous designs had caused Ya’akov to flee from home all those years before, is approaching him with 400 men in tow. Ya’akov’s presumption is that Esav and company are not coming for a reunion picnic…and he begins to make preparations for warfare. Afterwards, he will gather a sizeable number of his flocks to send ahead as a conciliatory gift to his brother.
Most importantly of all, perhaps, Ya’akov makes use of another strategy for dealing with adversity: prayer. He beseeches Hashem to deliver him from Esav. Before he actually makes that request, however, he surveys the somewhat bumpy course of his life and expresses heartfelt gratitude to G-d for watching over him-- helping him to prosper materially (and to survive spiritually) in the home of his brother. Here are his exact words (and note my emphasis):
"G-d of my father Avraham and G-d of my father Yitzhak…I have been
diminished [or, made small] by all the kindnesses and by all the truth that
You have done [to] Your servant; for with [only] my staff I crossed this Jordan,
and now I have become two camps. Rescue me, please, from the hand of my brother…" (32, 11-12)
Often, when things go well for a person and "fortune smiles" on his endeavors, he feels proud; his sense of self-satisfaction swells, particularly if his own talents or efforts played a role in that success. "I have been made bigger by this turn of events," he might think. Ya’akov, though, perceived things in precisely the opposite way. Rather than getting all puffed up by success, he felt small in the face of the blessings bestowed upon him.
Ramban (Nachmanidies) explains: "Ya’akov thus said that he was unworthy of
G-d’s promising him and performing those kindnesses which He promised him…"
Ya’akov’s attutude was not, "I had it coming to me all along", but, rather, "Nothing was ‘coming’ to me on my own merits…it was all a gift for which I am humbly grateful."
G-d is the great one; I am small. And the more success I enjoy in this world (all of which I perceive not as "fortune smiling" on me, but as G-d directly giving to me), the more I feel His greatness and my own smallness.
From these few words of Ya’akov, we are being taught a whole perspective on the "Jewish Way in Success and Prosperity." As the S’fas Emes puts it, "From every kindness [we experience], we need to come to submission…through understanding that we are not inherently deserving of this, but enjoy it only through His kindness." Indeed, every breath you take (to quote a song title from my college days) is not "coming to you."
(Nor is every move you make, either!) It’s all a gift.
Please note that this attitude of "submission," of feeling diminished by G-d’s kindness, does not mean we are not supposed to enjoy that kindness. Every gift--and breath--is a delight, and we should feel that delight and express that delight in thanks to G-d. Making a blessing before food, for example, as our Sages instituted for us, does not diminish our pleasure in that food. If anything, by focusing our mind on the great kindness it represents, we come to enjoy it and appreciate that food more, and on a deeper level! Our pleasure is enhanced.
Nor do we become passive from feeling "small." The more we benefit from G-d’s kindness to us (or perceive that kindness), the greater our responsibility to serve Him…and serve Him with joy. This is a fundamental principle of Jewish thought that the author of the medieval classic, Duties of the Heart (Chovos Ha’Levavos), discusses at length. Our obligation to serve G-d increases in proportion to the kindness we have enjoyed. We should become more active, and more proactive, in actualizing our unique potential in life…which, ultimately, is what the "service of G-d" is all about.
Surely this idea is implicit in Ya’akov’s words, as well: Because I don’t feel that I inherently deserve all these blessings, I pledge to serve you even more diligently…You, Who in Your kindness bestows such good on even the "undeserving."
The "added obligation" that G-d’s kindness brings should not worry us. After all, the more we undertake to serve G-d, the more of the highest (and most eternal pleasure) we can access--closeness to G-d Himself!
I hope we can all be inspired by Ya’akov’s attitude. In a small number of words, we’ve seen a big idea. We should all set out to do the biggest projects we can in this world (spiritually and otherwise)…but we should respond to success by getting small.
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