At the beginning of Vayishlach we find Yaakov greatly distressed as he prepares to meet his brother, Eisav, for the first time since he fled all those years before…
Then Jacob was greatly afraid and was distressed. And he divided the people that was with him, and the flocks, and the herds, and the camels, into two camps.
Yaakov turns to God…
And Jacob said: ‘O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, O LORD, who said unto me: Return unto thy country, and to thy kindred, and I will do thee good;
The invocation of his father and grandfather is strange enough, but things only get more peculiar as Yaakov continues his prayer…
I am diminished/not worthy of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which Thou hast shown unto Thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two camps.
Deliver me, I pray Thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and smite me, the mother with the children.
There are many questions one could ask about Yaakov’s prayers here, but the most pressing is without a doubt how to properly understand the line: “I am diminished/not worthy of all the mercies, and of all the truth”. What is truth? What is chesed?
Truth is that which, according to the letter of the law, you deserve. Chesed is, by definition, above and beyond the law; more than you deserve. Giving money that you owe to someone is not chesed. Paying taxes is not chesed. But when someone knocks on your door asking for money, and you oblige, that would be an example of chesed. You had absolutely no obligation to give him anything, but you did so anyway. It is above and beyond the letter of the law.
Having established this, the word קָטֹ֜נְתִּי/not worthy makes no sense here. By definition one is not worthy of chesed, so it’s unnecessary and redundant. And, on the flip side, truth, by definition, one is always deserving of. Everybody is worthy of justice. So what is Yaakov saying here?
Rashi explains that the word קָטֹ֜נְתִּי does not actually mean “not worthy”. Rather, Rashi elaborates, everyone has a bank account, of sorts, in heaven — credits, if you will, with God. When good things happen to you, you diminish, or “spend”, these credits — and vice versa. Yaakov was simply worried that, perhaps, he had used up all of his credits. Maybe since God’s promise of safety to him, he had become “dirty with sin”. Perhaps he was once worthy of God’s help and mercy, but was now no longer worthy.
However, for Rashi to translate a word so unusually, something had to be bothering him. Indeed, we know exactly what was bothering him — it is precisely the problems explained above. So Rashi explains that he wasn’t doubting God, but was rather doubting himself.
A Few Problems
Ramban, though, does not like Rashi’s answer at all. He has three problems with it:
- The word קָטֹ֜נְתִּי never means “diminished from a bank account” anywhere else the word is used.
- If Yaakov really did use up his zechuyos/credits, then who cares about the promises? If Yaakov was no longer worthy of God's promises, what good would it do for him to bring them back up to God?
- Yaakov references two promises. One was given by God over 22 years before this event, but there was also a newer promise given just a short while before, promising Yaakov that all would be well. Yaakov thought he was diminished from a new promise so quickly? Such a thing seems difficult to suggest…
Ramban suggests, instead, that the word קָטֹ֜נְתִּי simply means “not worthy". So, essentially, we are back to square one.
A Different Perspective
We must approach this from a different perspective. What does it really mean to say "I am not worthy of chesed"? How can that be? Well, if one views chesed as an investment, we can actually understand how this can be possible. A drug addict, for instance, is not worthy of your kindness/chesed. He is not deserving of your money, as he is not going to use it for anything productive; quite the opposite, in fact. This could, perhaps, explain Ramban. Yaakov very well could have been saying that he was not a worthy recipient of God’s chesed.
But how are we to understand that Yaakov was underserving of the truth?
There is a line in S’forno in which he addresses this same problem. He suggests that what Yaakov means when he says that he’s not worthy of truth and chesed is that he was not actually owed anything. What was owed was not actually owed to him, but was instead owed only to his father and grandfather — Yitzchak and Avraham. In short, Yaakov feared that his merits were not his own. "You owe that to others, but I myself am not worthy" is what Yaakov was saying here to God. You could even suggest that it is akin to getting a perfect score on a test without trying. It's not as good as when you've put in a tremendous amount of effort. You can technically be ”worthy” of the grade by the fact that you did indeed answer all of the questions correctly, but you are also not really worthy at the same time.
Prosperity With God
The Kli Yakar explains further. Yaakov references two promises in his prayer, as we mentioned above. He asks God to fulfill the more recent promise just as He had fulfilled the older promise. First, when Yaakov left Israel, he was promised protection, and he received it. Nothing negative happened to him, but nothing positive really happened to him either. It was a helmet — and while a helmet protects you, it does not actually elevate. What is the need for God to issue a second promise when Yaakov is with Lavan that all will be good when Yaakov returns to Israel? Because this second time God is not simply saying that Yaakov will be protected from the "wolves of Eisav" but that, this time, something positive will actually happen. God says "I will be with you" and Yaakov understands that to mean “prosperity”.
There is a nuance in the language of the posuk, though. God uses the phrase “with you” — not “for you”, not “to you”. There will be prosperity with Yaakov and God together. Yaakov is to do all he can, and God will fill in the rest. Yaakov would work as a shepherd, and God would take care of everything else.
At all points in which God and Man connect, it is easy to ignore and forget God. We believe that we are healthy because we take medicine. We are strong because we go to the gym. We are rich because we perform well at our job. Few are capable of seeing beyond this. We come first, and then comes God.
The word קָטֹ֜נְתִּי does not simply mean “I am not worthy”. There is something implicit in the statement as well: “[Despite my greatness,] I am not worthy”. This is the ultimate statement of humility. Yaakov is acknowledging that God is truly the One that is great — and the crossing of the Jordan with just a stick, flourishing into two full camps was the ultimate proof to Yaakov that everything came from God.
Gifts And God
The Ba’al HaTanya has a brilliant, poetic insight into this saga: It is possible for a person to have complete understanding that all gifts are from God, but still not fulfill "קָטֹ֜נְתִּי".
When a person receives chesed there are two normal reactions:
- The receiver can be focused upon the gift itself.
- The receiver can be focused upon his or her dependance on the giver.
Often the gifts that we receive are the very things that we use to hit God in the face with. God allows us to ignore Him. By God bestowing goodness upon us we no longer have any need for Him. We take the gifts and ignore the giver. Yaakov, however, states קָטֹ֜נְתִּי meaning that he is small vis a vis God. God’s kindness has shown how dependent Yaakov is on God’s chesed. And this is, of course, the ultimate way that one should approach chesed from God, as well as chesed from others.
When someone is stuck in a place without a ride home, and his friend repeatedly offers him a ride, but to no avail, when finally he gives in and accepts the chesed — this makes the receiver feel smaller. In a very good way he realizes that he is dependent on his friend. He realizes that he does, in fact, need the chesed.
Thus, there are two ways to look at things we receive in life:
That which we receive can make us bigger. We have something new — a fancy car, a chauffeur, etc. — and now we are bigger and better because of it. We go through the motions and even thank God, in some warped way — but this is corruption. The bigger we get, the smaller God gets. God becomes merely a means to an end. Family, money, happiness, and so forth, are the ultimate ends, and God simply becomes the means in order to achieve them. And if there was no God, but we had all of these things, we would be just as happy. We thank God in this model merely as a means, and not as the ultimate end.
This thinking escapes heresy, yes, but it is not true belief in God.
Yaakov says that "years ago I had nothing, and now I have two camps". The "and" is a comparison. Even with the new things that God had given him, he is just as connected to God as he was before. He uses the past tense when he says that he "had two camps”, again, to create a comparison to the past. He is now what he always was: dependent on God.
Rashi elsewhere says that Yaakov did three things before meeting Eisav — he prepared in three ways:
- He prayed.
- He prepared for a war.
- He brought gifts; the word specifically used by Rashi is “doron”.
Grammatically, the difference between the word “doron” and “matanah” as a term for “gift” is that “doron” is about the item itself, while "matanah" is about the giver.
Picture the following scenario: You wait all year for Chanukah. You rip open the wrapping paper and beneath it all is a pen. You would think it is the stupidest gift ever. You throw the paper to the floor. And as you do, you see a card falls out. You open the card and it turns out that the pen was from none other than the President himself (or your favorite celebrity of some other vocation, for that matter). Now the gift is infinitely greater. And yet it's not the gift itself that is great — the pen is meaningless. It's the giver that matters.
Yet, if one were to come home to a new car in the driveway, he or she would be much more excited about having a brand new car than he or she would be concerned about the giver.
Now we can finally truly understand Yaakov’s use of the word קָטֹ֜נְתִּי. Indeed, it does not mean “I am not worthy”. Rather, with our newfound understanding, its literal translation is most accurate after all. It means, simply, “I am diminished”. Yaakov was defining his ultimate goal in his relationship with God. Unlike so many of us, Yaakov was not made larger by all that he received, but rather, was made smaller/diminished by it. It emerges, then, that the proper reading of the posuk is as follows:
I am diminished/made smaller by all the mercies, and of all the truth, which Thou hast shown unto Thy servant…
(Yaakov then mentions the crossing of the Jordan and his two camps as examples of the goodness from God that has in fact “made him smaller/diminished him”, and then proceeds to ask, in the merit of this, to be saved.)
I heard this from one of my rebbeim a couple of years ago, and I absolutely think that this is the correct way to read this famous posuk. When you go back and piece everything together (which I highly suggest you do, now that you know the resolution), it reads absolutely beautifully.
All of this from our pursuit of understanding one word.