MORE THAN I DESERVE — “Vayishlakh” Gen. 32:4-36 — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
After 20 years, Jacob is on his way home. Here the Torah describes a scene en route that figures strongly in Jacob’s life, and also strikes a note that echoes in many of our own lives. Learning that his brother Esau is coming to meet him and bringing 400 armed men, Jacob quickly divides his group into two camps. The rear camp holds his wives and children, his animals and their shepherds — his wealth and the promise of his future. The forward camp, on the Jabbok crossing of the Jordan River, holds Jacob, alone. His reasoning anticipates an attack: “If Esau comes to one camp and strikes it, the second camp will still survive.”
As he sets up this division, he prays: “G-d of my father Abraham, G-d of my father Isaac, G-d who told me ‘Return to your homeland and I will deal well with you; I am too small for all the kindness and all the truth that You fashioned for me. With just my stick I first crossed this Jordan, and now I became two camps!”
Turn the clock forward a few millenia, and that prayer would read something like this: “With nothing but my mustering-out pay I first crossed this country, and now I have a business and a family and a yacht and a mansion on the hill!”
Or: “With only a passport I arrived all alone in America, and now I have a family and property and political leaders seeking my friendship!”
Or perhaps: “With only the clothes on my back I entered the garment district, and now I’m a top model, shareholder in a factory and sought after for movie roles!”
How many of us can be grateful to have feelings like those? And how many of us feel unworthy of our success? Jacob does not thump his chest and say Look what I did. He has enough humility to feel that G-d has helped him achieve more that he deserved. Highly appropriate, this message, coming right after the American Thanksgiving Day.
Does it apply to everyone? Obviously success can elude us; we can fail. Our father Jacob didn’t succeed every time either. Esau terrified him. Laban tricked him. He had to work hard and think hard and pray hard to end up on top. And, like the rest of us, he made mistakes along the way. He treated his sons unequally, nearly costing the life of his favorite, Joseph. How he treated his wives has prompted countless domestic tragedy stories. Ever since then, Torah Law prohibits one man from marrying two sisters — a ruling that came long before polygamy was outlawed. And yet, Jacob eventually rises above his mistakes, as we will see in the coming readings. He will face Pharaoh, not as a refugee begging tolerance but as an equal. He will leave his children some true ideals to live by. And he leaves all of us a character lesson in his simple prayer: “I am too small to merit all Your kindness.” A modicum of humility yields a masterpiece of gratitude.
Maybe, as someone who shall be nameless here recently said, “industry doesn’t create jobs” — oh yeah? — but an individual alone does not create success. A share of Divine inspiration and confidence is required. Let’s learn from Jacob to welcome that help.