"Diminishment" Deciphered

Naaleh_logo Shiur provided courtesy of Naaleh.com

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Yaakov Avinu is preparing to meet his brother Esau. He has sent messengers before him with gifts for Esau, hoping to reconnect peacefully. However, his messengers come back with a report that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 armed men. Frightened, Yaakov Avinu now prepares a double strategy. Should war erupt, his camp will be divided in two, allowing one camp to escape while the other is under attack. Once Yaakov Avinu has implemented this practical aspect, he prays for Hashem's help. First Yaakov Avinu reminds Hashem that Hashem has told him to return to his land, and that He will be with him. Yaakov Avinu then thanks Hashem for the blessings Hashem has already bestowed upon him. Finally, he expresses his fear that he is diminished and unworthy, and pleads that Hashem rescue him from the hands of Esau, his brother.

In this sequence of Yaakov Avinu's conversation with Hakodosh Boruch Hu, Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz sees the model for all prayer. Simple and true, his words flow directly from his heart, and thus rise up to the heavens.

Given that Hashem told Yaakov Avinu to return home, and that Hashem promised to be with him, why did Yaakov Avinu still feel he needed to pray for Hashem's protection? The Ner Uziel explains through an analogy. Just as there is a "banking system" on earth, so is there one in heaven through which deposits and withdrawals are made. We have merits and good deeds deposited in this bank account. When we experience good fortune, especially unexpected blessings and miracles, we have made a withdrawal from this heavenly bank account. Since we do not receive any monthly statements, we do not know our balance. However, even if our balance is depleted, continues Rabbi Uziel Milevsky zt”l, sincere prayer provides us with overdraft protection. Yaakov Avinu thanked Hashem for the family and wealth he had accumulated while with Lavan, but he feared that these blessings depleted his heavenly bank account, that he would no longer merit extra Divine protection, and he would then be vulnerable to Esau's attacks. Therefore, he prayed, understanding the power of prayer.

It is with this idea in mind that the congregation responds to one who has blessed Hashem for saving him from danger (ברכת הגומל) with, "May He Who bestowed goodness upon you continue to bestow every goodness upon you forever," explains Rabbi Beyfus.

Rabbi Sternbach offers us an additional tool for maintaining a balance in our heavenly account. He suggests that by using our blessings to continuously praise Hashem, we are using these blessings as a means of sanctifying God's name rather than for our personal benefit, offsetting any withdrawal.

Yaakov Avinu must know he hasn't lowered the balance of his account through sinning. However, suggests Rabbi Druk, Yaakov Avinu may fear that having received so much, he is on a higher level, and now much more is expected of him. Perhaps he no longer measures up to his minimum balance requirement. When you witness specific hashgachah pratis/ personal supervision, you have a higher awareness and must serve Hashem on a higher level, concurs Rabbi Finkel.

Focusing now on Yaakov Avinu himself, the Megged Yosef, Rabbi Sorotskin, reminds us of the power of speech. Lavan had accused Yaakov Avinu of cheating him, and now Yaakov Avinu Avinu wondered what within himself raised this suspicion [although Lavan, the source of that accusation, was merely projecting his own flaws onto Yaakov Avinu, CKS]. A tzadik must be above even a hint of suspicion. Perhaps, as righteous as he was, Yaakov Avinu feared he had nevertheless not lived up to his full potential, adds Rabbi Feinstein zt"l. If Yaakov Avinu Avinu was afraid of falling short, how much more so must we be afraid of becoming complacent in our service to Hashem, of remaining merely mediocre when we could be so much more, adds Rabbi Frand. Even if we feel we have achieved much, there is always more to do to fulfill our calling. As Rebbetzin Smiles notes, we can work on our middos even in our everyday routines, from being mindful to holding the door for someone behind us to smiling at and validating a service person.

Everyone should desire to improve himself each day, writes Rabbi Friefeld zt”l. At least desire to reach higher, to reach the next rung of the ladder, and with that desire, ask Hashem to help you grow, to give you the energy to do one more thing.

Are we cognizant and grateful for all that Hashem has given us? That sense of entitlement and ungratefulness is also a sin, teaches us Rabbi Fryman. We take everything for granted. Yet, if we tried to maneuver around our lives blindfolded for even a half hour, we would come to appreciate the "natural" gift of sight Hashem has blessed us with.

The Yalkut Lekach Tov cites the Gaon of Vilna's understanding of gratitude through the eyes of David as he volunteered to fight Goliath. David pointed to his garment as proof of Hashem's earlier protection. A wolf and a bear had carried off one of the sheep he was shepherding. When he went after the sheep, saving it, he realized that Hashem had saved him from the wolf and the bear. Grateful for this miracle, he offered the sheep as a sacrifice to Hashem and made its sheepskin into a garment. He wore that garment constantly to remind him to always be grateful to Hashem for the miracle of saving his life at that time. 

If Yaakov Avinu was afraid because of his unworthiness, how should we feel? We may think we are doing fine, but then we are undoubtedly unaware of the little sins we do almost routinely. How often do we hold a grudge, judge someone unfavorably, or neglect to thank Hashem for some kindness? We should be in a continuous state of teshuvah, urges us the Ohr Doniel. Nevertheless, we ask Hashem to help us.

Ramban relies on the technical definition of katonti in his interpretation of this verse. Katon is used for things that are measured [while me'at is used for things that are counted. The English equivalents would be small/little vs. few. CKS] With this definition, Ramban interprets the verse not as, "my merits are few," but rather as, "I am small and undeserving. Help me, Hashem, because You want to give."

It is with this attitude that we should approach davening, writes Rabbi Weiss in Ziv Hechachmah. We deserve nothing, yet Hashem does so much for me. Only after one acknowledges this and shows Hashem appreciation for all Hashem does for him, should one make a request of Hashem. We must acknowledge all His kindness because we realize we ourselves are undeserving. Even if one increases his mitzvoth so they are as numerous as the sands of the sea, wrote Bachya ben Pakuda in Chovot Halevovot, he would still fall short of meriting even one kindness from Hashem.

In Sha'arim B'tefillah, Rabbi Pincus zt”l quotes the Shulchan Aruch that tells us that when a person prays, he should approach Hashem like a pauper at the door. In other words we are not asking because we have any merits upon which to rely; like a humble pauper with nothing to offer, we ask Hashem for help simply because we must rely on His generosity.

In this context, writes Rabbi Weiss, we accept whatever Hashem chooses to give us, knowing that whatever He gives us or withholds from us is all for the good.

We are all filled with a sense of entitlement. However, a true tzadik realizes that even our mitzvah observance depends on gifts from Hakodosh Boruch Hu. Who gave us the house upon which we can affix a mezuzah, or the son upon which to perform the circumcision, asks Rav Nosson Cohen in Aderes Kohein? In fact, notes Rabbi Cohen, Rabbenu Yonah lists noting Hashem's kindnesses as one of the positive commandments. It is only after this acknowledgment that one may proceed to pray for anything else.

As we are approaching Chanukah in just one week, we can include a Chanukah message. Rabbi Friedlander zt”l, the Sifsei Chaim, notes that the heroes of the Chanukah story all have names that denote some form of gratitude. From Matityahu/the gift of Hashem, to Yochanan/Hashem has been gracious, to Yehudah/thank Hashem/confess [that all comes from] Hashem, we recognize, through these names, that all is a gift from Hashem. In fact, we conclude both al Hanissim and candle lighting with the realization that it is all to give thanks to and praise His great Name. Even in our daily prayer, we first thank Hashem with Modim and then request Shalom.

Because of all the gifts You have given me, writes the Sefas Emes, I have become smaller.

In Sifsei Da'as develops this idea more fully. In his plea to Hashem, Yaakov Avinu goes back twenty years to express his thanks to Hakodosh Boruch Hu: "Look where I came from. All I had was my staff. Now, Hashem, You have made me full with two camps." It is this realization that keeps one humble. It is this realization, as Yaakov Avinu's descendants, that keeps us all humble as we constantly remember our beginnings as a nation of slaves that Hashem redeemed and made us a great nation. While the haughty are never satisfied, this realization fills us with gratitude. It is in the merit of this humility that Yaakov Avinu, and we, ask to be saved.

My smallness comes from the realization of all you have given me, explains the Divrei Yisroel of Modzitz. Your gifts have shown me how indebted I am to You and how much I rely on You. In that merit, Hashem, help me and save me now as well.

Rebbetzin Smiles told us of one of the miracles of October 7 in Kibbutz Be'eri. A young man had recently been approached by Chabad to put on Tefillin. He had also been taught "Shema Yisroel..." This young man's soul had been touched, and he remembered that line. During the terrorist attack, he kept repeating that one prayer as all he knew. Having survived, he understood the power of his simple but heartfelt prayer. Now he wants to thank Hashem for his survival and learn how to pray fully.

Prayer is our service to Hashem. It must come from our heart. We certainly try to become more worthy of Hashem's kindness through performing mitzvoth and acts of chessed, but we also realize that however much we do, it is never enough for even a down payment for all He does for us. With this in mind, we approach Hashem humbly, asking for His blessing for each of us and especially for Kllal Yisroel.