Parshat VaYishlach, Genesis 32:4-36:43
Humility is the solid foundation of all virtues.
Our forefather Jacob feared his upcoming reunion with his brother Esau. Years before, Esau had vowed to kill Jacob for taking his blessing. Now, Esau was advancing with a large army to meet him. Jacob had good reason to be afraid.
Jacob prepared for a worst-case scenario. First, he sent conciliatory messages and gifts. Then, he prepared his family and servants for the confrontation. Finally, he prayed to Hashem.
He prayed: “I am not worthy of 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.” (Genesis 31:10)
He used the word katonti, which means “I am small, unworthy.” Jacob requested G-d’s help out of a sense of dependence, not entitlement. He asked humbly for help, as a child might ask a parent or a servant might ask a master.
Humility is an essential trait in the life of every Jew. A person should not be egotistical or inflated with a sense of self. He or she should not exaggerate his or her own self-worth. The Talmud says: “Rebi Yochanan said: ‘Wherever you find the greatness of The Holy One, Blessed is He, there you find His humility’” (Megillah 31a). As in so many anthropomorphic verses, the Talmud is expressing something about G-d in language that we can comprehend. Imitatio Dei. G-d demonstrates humility so that we should see it and emulate it.
We have been given so many blessings. This is certainly not due to our own efforts but is rather a gift from the Holy One above. Rabbi Zelig Pliskin says in his “Gateway to Happiness”: A humble person realizes that nothing is owed him (or her) and therefore feels satisfied with what he (or she) has.” When we are humble, we are also grateful. Gratitude is a deep awareness of the gifts we have been given.
“Katonti,” Jacob said, “I am unworthy. I am small. I did not sow it myself. I trust that Hashem will arrange for things to work out for me.”
As we celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving, it is with this same sense of humility. We must appreciate what we have and share with others.
I wish you a Shabbat shalom and a happy Thanksgiving.
Rabbi Eli Seidman is director of pastoral care at the Jewish Association on Aging. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.