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BIG FISH, SMALL POND

by Rabbi Mordechai Saxon    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

"Behold, I am with you; I will guard you wherever you go,
and I will return you to this soil" (Genesis 28:15).

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"Behold, I am with you; I will guard you wherever you go,
and I will return you to this soil" (Genesis 28:15).

As His concluding statement to Jacob in the glorious dream of the ladder in this week's Torah portion, Hashem promises that He will ensure Jacob's safe return to the land of Israel. Yet, on the journey back home in next week's portion, we find that Jacob prepares for his potentially life-threatening encounter with Esau in several ways. He prays to Hashem, he sends gifts to appease Esau, and he prepares for war by dividing his camp in half, declaring that "if Esau comes to the one camp and strikes it down, then the remaining camp shall survive" (ibid. 32:9). If Jacob was armed with Hashem's promise of protection, how are we to understand the elaborate preparations for battle? True enough, even with Hashem's blessings we still have to do something, as the verse says, "Hashem your G-d will bless you in all that you do," (Deuteronomy 15:18), or as the colloquial expression has it, "G-d helps those who help themselves." We need to do something tangible in this world to create a "vessel" in which Hashem's blessings can materialize, but isn't dividing up the camp a bit too much?

To pray is certainly appropriate, as we are obligated to beseech Hashem with our needs. Sending gifts to make peace is also reasonable. Even preparing for war is understandable, for there are many times when war is our only option, and there are instances when we are obligated to fight. Self-defense definitely qualifies as one of them. But to divide up the camp implies a real fear that you don't think you will succeed, that you actually believe that Esau might win, that Hashem won't protect you. What about Hashem's promise? Certainly Jacob did not forget about it.

It seems that the answer lies in Jacob's prayer to Hashem, "I have been made small by all the kindnesses and by all the truths You have done for Your servant" (Genesis 32:11). Rashi, the fundamental commentator on the Torah, explains that while Jacob was completely aware of Hashem's previous assurances to him, he was nevertheless afraid because he felt unworthy of G-d's continued kindness. "Perhaps I have lost my merits," thought Jacob, "as a result of the kindness that Hashem has already shown to me. I might therefore be undeserving of any further protection."

But how are we to understand this fear? Doesn't Hashem's constant attention to Jacob prove his worthiness even more? After all, what greater proof does Jacob need to feel special and important than the constant attention shown to him by Hashem?

There is an expression in Jewish thought that, "The epitome of knowledge is to know that you don't know." An unlearned person thinks he knows it all, but through studying we become aware of how much more there is beyond what we already know. Hence, the more you learn, the more you become aware of your own ignorance. Parenthetical to this, a person once complained to his rabbi, "Why must I study so much? I know that I don't know anything." to which his rabbi responded, "Now you only think that you don't know; once you begin learning you will know that you don't know."

When a person acts like a big shot, it is only because he is looking into a very small pond. If, however, his vision was enlightened enough to see the greater picture, he would realize just how small he truly is. Thus, the statement of the sages, "The arrogant and Hashem cannot coexist" (Talmud Tractate Sotah 5a), can be understood not as a punishment but rather as a statement of fact. If a person walks around arrogant, this itself is proof that he does not "walk with Hashem," for if he did, he would naturally become humble.

Perhaps now we have an insight into Jacob's actions. It was precisely because of Hashem's continued kindness to him that he felt unworthy of any additional favors.

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Rabbi Mordechai Saxon writes from Atlanta.

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