Trembling on what may be the eve of destruction, Jacob counts his blessings and and teaches us to get a jump on that project!
Table for Five: Vayishlach
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
I have become small from all the kindnesses and from all the truth that You have rendered Your servant, for with my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. -Gen 32:11
Nili Isenberg, Pressman Academy Judaic Studies Faculty
“Katonti,” I have become small. Some commentaries (see Radak) explain this to mean that Yaakov felt unworthy of all the kindnesses God bestowed upon him. And like Yaakov, the Jewish people continue to receive many kindnesses from God, as we say (Psalm 136), “Give thanks to God, for He is good, His kindness is eternal.”
This past Sunday, we remembered November 29, 1947, the historic date on which the United Nations voted to approve a modern Jewish state in the ancient land of our forefathers. “Katonti,” with the Jewish people decimated in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, we thanked God for His eternal kindness.
Twenty years later, in May of 1967, as the state continued to face existential threats from surrounding enemies, Naomi Shemer wrote the timeless ode to the City of Gold, “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.” Jerusalem still lay beyond the reach of any Jewish visitor until the victory of the Six Day War in June. Her lyrics borrow the phrase from our verse, “Katonti,” I am the smallest of the poets to offer this song, unworthy to expect a return to our holy city, but asking nonetheless.
And today, when we face a different but no less frightening enemy than others we’ve faced along our history, we continue to say “Katonti,” we are unworthy of all the blessings and silver linings we find despite the challenges. That’s why I wear a COVID mask that says “Modeh Ani,” to acknowledge that “I am grateful” at this season of gratitude, and always.
Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Judaic Studies Faculty, Shalhevet High School
On the eve of his fearful reunion with Esau, Jacob prays to God for protection. This particular verse can be read in two distinct ways. Jacob could be complaining: “You have done much for me, but now that I have crossed the Jordan and returned to my homeland, I am forced to split my camp in two to protect them from annihilation at the hands of my brother.” Or Jacob could be expressing gratitude: “You have done so much for me. When I left home, I had nothing but my staff. Now I am blessed with so much, it fills two camps.”
Jacob has reason to complain. He fears Esau still wants to kill him for stealing his blessing. Thus, Jacob confronts God, arguing that all His gifts will come to naught if Esau massacres Jacob and his family. However, why would Jacob thank God for his blessings at the very moment he stands to lose everything?
Rashi suggests Jacob is not expressing gratitude as much as fear. Jacob acknowledges God’s kindness because he fears he has already received more than he deserves. Perhaps God owes Jacob nothing more and will not save him.
Rashi’s insight is psychologically astute. The more we have, the more we have to lose. Whether it is friends, family, a job, our home, our community, our freedoms, or our health, we should not wait until they are in jeopardy to recognize how rich we truly are. What have you got to lose?
Rabbi Michael Barclay, Spiritual Leader of Temple Ner Simcha
It is a commonality among the rituals of indigenous cultures that the participant must make himself “small” in order to enter the ceremony. Participants in the Inipi sweat lodge ceremony crawl into the lodge, and the arches of the Yaqui Matechinas force people to recognize their own “small-ness.” It is believed that only through this initial humbling can a person truly rise into their destiny.
We see here how Jacob expresses that wisdom. Our verse takes place immediately before Jacob has his transcendent experience of wrestling with an angel and receiving the new name of Israel. Although it had always been his destiny to be a great leader of the people, it is only when he personally recognizes how small he is that he becomes ready to father a nation. His prayer of gratitude for God’s gifts of truth and kindness leads to a recognition that he is both small and important in God’s eyes. Finally accepting the yoke of service, Jacob is now ready to become Israel: the leader of Am Yisrael. He understood the deep truth that we are simultaneously small and yet vital to God.
Rebbe Simcha Bunim (18th century Poland) taught that every person should have two pieces of paper in their pocket: one saying “I am but ashes and dust”, and the other “For my sake was the world created.” Jacob knew that both were true. May each of us always know which paper to read, and be blessed to become great in our service of being small.
Rabbi Aaron Finkelstein, Milken Community School
The relationship between kindness and truth is complex. Sometimes these values appear in tension, like the famous Talmudic debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai about what to do at a wedding if you find the person getting married unattractive (Ketubot 16b). While Beit Shammai prioritizes truth above all, Beit Hillel advises a more compassionate approach.
For us, we might experience this tension when broaching a difficult conversation with a loved one or offering critical feedback. In our verse however, kindness and truth are not at odds but rather share a fascinating quality: they both have the capacity to humble a person. Yacov is overwhelmed by the kindness he has received from God. Years ago, penniless and alone, Yacov fled Esav. Now Yacov is blessed with both family and fortune, and enough largess to divide into two camps. In this moment of taking stock, Yacov becomes acutely aware of all the kindness and blessings in his life.
Yet, with this kindness comes the humbling realization that he could lose everything. Esav awaits with a small army. Yacov may not survive his family reunion. Though Yacov was threatened before, he feels more vulnerable now because he now has so much more to lose. This then is the beautiful and harsh truth about the kindness we receive, and especially the blessings we receive from God: we can lose them. Faced with this reality, we must learn from Yacov and humbly cherish the gifts of life that are most dear to us.
Rabbi Chanan Gordon, prominent inspirational speaker
The proliferation of technology and explosion of social media have brought great convenience to the world, but the collateral damage is a generation with a sense of entitlement.
Parshas Vayishlach is a sobering reminder of the antithesis of entitlement, i.e. the understanding that nothing is coming to us, but rather it is all a gift from the Almighty.
From Yaakov’s prayer for salvation from the hand of his brother Eisav, we learn the importance of this trait of gratitude. Yaakov says, “I have become small from all of the kindnesses and from all of the truth that You have done with Your servant, because with my staff did I pass over this Jordan [river] and now I have become two camps.” We might’ve expected him to say “I have become great from all the kindnesses…” and be thankful for that!
In short, Yaakov expresses how he is so utterly beholden to G-d for the great chesed of developing him into a large and prosperous family. In stark contrast to feeling any form of entitlement, when beseeching Hashem to protect him from the wrath of Eisav, Yaakov felt the need to excuse himself for being unworthy to make such a request since he is already so greatly indebted to Hashem for all that He has done for him in transforming him from a lone traveler into a mighty and prosperous family of two camps.
In a world that so often puts “me” before “He,” we should always remember that as the progeny of Yaakov we have inherited the trait of gratitude that he personified.
With thanks to Nili Isenberg, Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Rabbi Michael Barclay, Rabbi Aaron Finkelstein, and Rabbi Chanan Gordon.
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