December 12th-13th, 2003
18 Kislev, 5764
The following is a revised, and updated, edition of an essay from our
How do we react to the good we experience in life?
Does it make us feel proud of ourselves, or somehow vindicated? ("I am
something after all, and the ‘gods’ concur!") Does it spur us to energetic
new action and commitment, or does it draw us into blissful
repose—"resting on our laurels?" (Much of the time, perhaps, we don’t even
acknowledge that we are experiencing any good at all, we hardly take
notice of the blessings enveloping us from all sides. That’s a big problem
At the start of this week’s portion, we see how a tzadik—a supremely
righteous individual—reacts to the good he has experienced. In a few brief
words describing Ya’akov’s state of mind prior to his portentous encounter
with his brother, Esav, the Torah teaches us a whole perspective on how to
deal with all that goes, and feels, right in our lives! (Of course, our
Sages teach us that everything G-d sends our way is ultimately "right,"
just and perfectly fitted to help us progress on the particular spiritual
mission we have in life. But here we’re dealing with those blessings
openly recognized as such.)
Let’s set the scene. Ya’akov is returning to Eretz Canaan (Israel) 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. Sensing that Esav and company are not
coming for a reunion picnic (his messengers bring back no word of party
hats), Ya’akov begins to make preparations for warfare. He also assembles
a sizeable number of animals from his flocks to send ahead as a
conciliatory gift to his brother.
Most importantly of all, perhaps, Ya’akov makes use of a third strategy
for dealing with adversity: prayer to the Almighty. (Although we Jews must
take normal actions and precautions within the laws of nature in
responding to challenges, we also need to turn in supplication towards the
One above nature, Who ultimately determines the outcome.) Ya’akov
beseeches Hashem to deliver him from Esav.
Before he actually makes that request, however, he looks back over his
life and expresses heartfelt gratitude to G-d for guiding and protecting
him throughout all his travels and tribulations. He gratefully
acknowledges that G-d has helped him to prosper materially, and to survive
spiritually, in the home of his uncle. Here are his exact words (and note
"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,
Often, as we suggested at the outset, 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 (which is usually the case). "I have been
made bigger by this turn of events," he might think. "I feel bigger."
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…"
In other words, 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. All the
good I experienced was a gift for which I am humbly grateful. G-d is the
great one; I am small." The more success a righteous person experiences in
the world (all of which he perceives not as "the smile of fortune," or "a
lucky roll of the dice," of course, but as the living G-d directly
bestowing a blessing), the more the tzadik feels His greatness…and his own
This is the classic Torah perspective on the "Jewish Way in Success and
Prosperity." As the S’fas Emes [profound modern Torah commentary by the
second Gerrer Rebbe] 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 a precious blessing, not a debt owed to you through any prior merits.
(The same holds for every move you make as well!) It’s all a gift. And the
more we get—and the more we train ourselves to perceive the immense gifts
we always get--, the more we should be brought to a sense of awe and
humility and thankfulness before the One Who is the Source of all life.
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 and praise 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 each bite (or cup of 100% Arabica) yields, we come to enjoy and
appreciate it 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 in action increases in proportion to the kindness
we have enjoyed. When we notice (and count) our blessings, 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. The response of the righteous to the good they experience? Show
gratitude to G-d by doing more to serve Him, assuming more responsibility
in action, strengthening the commitment to carry out the mitzvos
completely (and to fulfill them more deeply and passionately).
Surely this idea is implicit in Ya’akov’s words quoted above, as well:
"Because I don’t feel that I inherently deserve all these blessings, I
pledge to serve you even more diligently after experiencing them. I will
try to fulfill Your will more perfectly--You, Who in Your kindness bestows
such good on even the undeserving." Awareness of G-d’s blessings calls
forth our commitment to try to serve G-d more perfectly. Our gratitude can
(and should) lead us to try to achieve a closer relationship to Him
through the study of Torah and the performance of the mitzvos.
We descendants of Ya’akov can learn from our ancestor how to feel "small"
in the sense of being humbled by G-d’s immense kindness. But that feeling
of smallness actually will lead us to develop our spiritual greatness!
The "added obligation" to serve G-d after acknowledging His blessings
worries some people. ("Maybe it’s better to notice less, so I won’t be
expected to do as much…") But this is shortsighted, and based on a tragic
misunderstanding of the idea of the "service of G-d" that the Torah asks
of us. 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! Keeping
the Torah is an obligation, yes, but one that yields the greatest meaning,
spiritual pleasure and existential success imaginable: closeness to G-d in
this world, and the world to come. In the final analysis, then, it’s a
very, very good deal.
I hope we can all be inspired by Ya’akov’s attitude. May each of us look
at the good in our lives, the past and present blessings bestowed on
us…and feel how small we are. Then we can give thanks to G-d—in words and
songs of praise (Chanukah is coming up, a holiday dedicated to just that),
and in righteous deeds that will bring out what is great within us.
My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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