When smallness is greatness

By Rabbi Dan Lewin
Parashat Vayishlach

The stories and dense verses of the Chumash relate important lessons about fundamental character traits and emotions, both positive qualities we strive to emulate and negative inclinations we must guard against. This is especially true with the first book, Bereisheet, which serves as the platform and blueprint for later generations of the Jewish people. Here, we find personalities who embody hatred and brutality, jealousy and vengefulness. On the flip side, there are models of humility and hospitality, insight and grit.

The wide range of complex human emotions that are now well-defined in ethical works and modern psychology have their counterpart in precise Hebrew terms discussed in sacred Jewish texts, which elucidate the traits of our biblical role models and historical foes.

This week, Yaakov attempts to return to the Holy Land with his large family after 20 years of being away in Charan. But he soon learns that his brother Eisav, still fuming from their last encounter, is on the warpath. Scared that he may get killed, distressed that he may need to kill others, he prepares for war and prays to the Almighty. His critical petition begins with the words: “I have become small from all the kindnesses and from all the truth that you have given Your servant, for with my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps” (Genesis 32:11).

Kindness, truth and modesty

Paying close attention to the phrases in this introductory line, several questions arise. First, what exactly does Yaakov means by “I have become small”? Second, what is “all the truth” to which he refers? And finally, being that he had already received a promise from G-d — “Behold, I am with you [and I shall protect you wherever you go]” — why was he so scared?

To begin, the commentaries explain that Avraham’s dominant trait was kindness and love (chesed). His son Yitzhak, on the other hand, exemplified a holy strength and might (gevurah). Yaakov’s quality is truth (emes) and compassion, as the verse declares: “You grant truth to Jacob, lovingkindness unto Avraham” (Micha 7:20). This trait of truth that Yaakov embodies — a sense of justice or fairness that is tilted toward empathy — stems from his recognition of the divine kindness that he has received.

The Torah commentaries teach that this central characteristic of truth — represented by the first middle and last letter of the Hebrew alphabet — entails a broad perspective, a thorough and sincere mode of operating. But “all the truth” to which he refers in the verse is “the realization of Your words, that you kept for me all the promises that you made to me.” Even though Yaakov had an explicit promise from G-d, he took nothing for granted. Instead, he felt that perhaps, through all the accumulated blessings of wealth and children, he had used up his credit, so to speak. His previous string of victories in Charan made him feel diminished.

Opposite reactions to success

These words, “I have become small,” also convey a message for our lives. After emerging triumphant from a conflict or ordeal, a person may choose to adopt two natural yet opposite attitudes. One is to feel more entitled and become brazen towards one’s previous opponents, believing one’s good fortune to be the result of merits. The other is to feel overwhelmingly grateful and to proceed with grace and extra humility.

The mystical texts explain that the first attitude is the character trait of Ishmael, who symbolizes misappropriated chesed, a perversion of his father’s kindness. The more blessing and success experienced, the more arrogance and self-assertiveness arises within. The pervading thought is I deserve this kindness and the demands increase. (To paraphrase British historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle, for every 100 men who can withstand adversity, only one can withstand prosperity. Success tests a person’s character and resolve. At the very least it can lead to complacency. In the worst cases, it breeds arrogance and self-destructiveness.)

The contrasting reaction is the trait of Yaakov, whose blessings and achievements provoke greater humility and self-effacement. The more Yaakov was given, the smaller and more grateful he felt. In short, in the holy realm humility and gratitudego hand in hand; in the counterforce to kedusha, feelings of self-importance and entitlement pervade the scene.

Closeness causes smallness

Further explaining this distinction, the Tanya provides a guiding principle: “With every single favor that G-d bestows upon a person, he or she should become increasingly humble….Therefore, whoever is closer to G-d is that much more like nothing, naught and nonexistent. This response is the level of the ‘right side’ of holiness and ‘chesed unto Abraham,’ who declared, ‘I am dust and ashes’ (Genesis 18:27).”

The underlying idea in this text — why receiving kindness should increase humility — is that blessings in one’s life signify closeness to G-d, an added sign of affection. And the truthful path is that the closer one moves toward detecting the Infinite, the more insignificant and undeserving one naturally feels. In other words, this reaction is not simply a commendable virtue, but the result of greater recognition. In contrast, the self-centered character instinctively attributes success to being inherently superior, becoming more prideful with every conquest.

The significance of this attribute (the legacy of Yaakov) for the Jewish people, known as “the remainder of Israel” (Jeremiah 6:9; 31:6), applies both to one’s private relationship with G-d and to human relationships. Simply put, we must respond to divine kindness with greater humility to others. There inevitably comes a time in everyone’s life where they face battles against haters or merely onlookers who doubt them or wish them harm. And when successful, instead of gloating or rubbing it in, the test is to display humility toward others. From a different angle, being a creature of flesh and blood, everyone will get humbled at some point down the road. So, we must learn to humble ourselves during good times before getting humbled against our will.

Between levels

On a deeper level, Yaakov’s reference to “becoming small” speaks to stages of growth. He was entering a new stage in all phases of his life, seeking to rectify the past, ready to battle the angel who embodies the spirit of Esau. The result of emerging victorious would be reaching the heights of Yisrael, given the new name signifying royalty. But being in between levels, he felt small — in a state of “nothingness.” Sensing this void, he prayed for extra strength.

This idea holds true, in a general sense, for each person: Reaching the next rung in the ladder of life involves encountering a conflict or crunch that tests one’s faith — a pivotal choice that, if correct, allows one to emerge with greater merit and insight. As someone enters the trial and attempts to rise to the next stage, they are between levels: neither identifying with the person of the past nor the new being who they will become. As such, the key mentality for overcoming the impending conflict is to become small, acknowledging all the kindness and favor that led you to arrive at this pivotal point.

Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

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