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by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek


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Parashas Vayishlach (5762)

Jacob prepares for his meeting with his brother Esau after 20 years of self-enforced separation. Jacob had fled from Esau because he feared his brother would take revenge for having received the blessing from their father, Isaac. Jacob's efforts are directed towards appeasing Esau. He also relies on an appeal for mercy from Hashem. In his prayer he makes the following statement:

Genesis 32:11

"I am smaller than all of the mercies and of all the truth, which You have done with Your servant, for with my staff I passed over the Jordan and now I have become two camps."


I am smaller than all the mercies: RASHI: My merits have diminished due to the mercies and the truth that You have done for me. Therefore I am afraid that perhaps since the time that You made Your promise to me I have become tainted by sin and it will cause me to be given over to Esau.


The Hebrew words in this verse would be ordinarily be translated as "I am smaller than all the mercies…" (as many English translations have it and as we have it above). But Rashi translates these words differently. He says their meaning is "My merits have been diminished due to the mercies ...." and when Rashi says " My merits" he means, as a consequence, Jacob himself. He means that since his merits have been diminished, consequently he has been made small because of all the mercies.

Rashi's interpretation is different from the customary one in two ways:

1) Rashi translates the Hebrew word "katonty" as "I have been diminished" and not "I am unworthy (or too small).

2) Rashi translates the Hebrew letter "mem" in the word "mikol" as "due to of all" and not as "than all." This latter use of the "mem" is the more frequent usage. See for example when Judah says of Tamar "She is more righteous than I." (Hebrew "mimeni." Genesis 38:26)

According to Rashi, Jacob is saying: By having been the recipient of all of G-d's mercies, Jacob's credit, so to speak, has dwindled. The verse, then, does not mean : "I am smaller than all of G-d's kindness…"

And because his credit has dwindled, Jacob feels more vulnerable to Esau's evil designs.


Rashi's comment has two parts to it, both of them are intended to explain Jacob's plea to Hashem.

1) Jacob fears that his credit has diminished,

2) Jacob fears that he may have committed sins after G-d's promise to protect him, and thus these sins may have nullified the promise of protection.


The Ramban is critical of Rashi's interpretation for the following reason. He says that G-d promised Jacob (a second time before he left Lavan's house) that He would be "with him" on his way back to Eretz Yisroel (Genesis 31:3). And from the time of that promise until this point in time, Jacob hadn't received any special kindness from Hashem, which could have reduced his merits. So, according to Rashi, what is Jacob afraid of?

Can you think of an answer for Rashi?

Hint: Remember, as we said above, there are two parts to Rashi's comment.

Think logically.

Your Answer:


An Answer: The Mizrachi suggests an answer to the Ramban's question. He says, quite simply, that it is true that Jacob had already received G-d's kindness before he left Lavan's house (the successful building of his family and his success in becoming independent financially). But if Jacob had sinned since leaving Lavan's house (which is what he feared) then his "low bank account of merits" (having already been diminished by G-d's previous acts of kindness) he would no longer be privileged to receive G-d's protection. This is what Jacob feared.


As we know, Jacob prepared himself for this encounter with gifts, prayer, and battle (see Rashi 32:9)

Jacob's whole approach to dealing with his situation with Esau is a lesson in accountability, utility and humility.

Accountability because Jacob felt he had to do his utmost (the gifts, prayer and war) and not rest on his laurels.

Utility: He offered Esau gifts to assuage his anger and also prepared for war with him if they didn't help, even though he prayed to G-d and knew that ultimately his fate would be determined by G-d.

Humility: Certainly Jacob's words "I have been diminished by Your kindness" (Rashi) or "I am too small" (Ramban), are candid expressions of deeply felt humility.

But we see this humility in another part of this story as well. Remember that because of Jacob feared Esau would smite him "mother and child" (verse 12) he divided his one camp in two, as a protective move.

Later Jacob thanks G-d (our verse 32:11) and says "with my staff (alone) I crossed over this Jordan river (when he originally came to Lavan's house) and now I have become two camps!"

Amazing! Jacob had become "two camps" as a protective measure, because he was in a life threatening situation. And yet he saw this as a blessing! He saw G-d's benefits even in his time of peril. He looked at his two camps in the midst of being threatened by his brother and saw only G-d's blessings. This can be a lesson to all of us, in times of stress. To see G-d's silver lining which encompasses and limits the black clouds in our life.

Shabbat Shalom
Avigdor Bonchek

"What's Bothering Rashi?" is a production of "The Institute for the Study of Rashi."

Dr. Bonchek will be in the States IY"H this coming February on a lecture tour. Congregations or organizations interested in having him lecture for them are invited to contact him at msbonch@mscc.huji.ac.il.

The Institute is in the process of preparing the Devorim volume of "What's Bothering Rashi?" This volume will feature Rashi and the Ba'alie Tosephos. Readers interested in sponsoring a sedra in this volume are encouraged to contact us for further details at msbonch@mscc.huji.ac.il

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