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by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek


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Parashas Vayishlach (72)

This week's sedra tells of Jacob's meeting his brother Esau after 20 years & his return to Eretz Yisrael. Jacob is quite "concerned" before his meeting with Esau, lest his brother take revenge for Jacob's actions regarding the blessings from Isaac.

He pleads with Hashem to protect him.

We read:

Genesis 32:10

I am too small (Hebrew: 'Katonti") of all the mercies and of all the truth which You which You have done with Your servant, for (only) with my staff I crossed over this Jordan and now I have become two camps!"


I am too small (Hebrew: 'Katonti") of all the mercies: Rashi: My merits are diminished as a consequence of all the kindness and truth which You have already done for me , therefore I am afraid , perhaps since the time when You made these promises to me I have ruined myself by sinning and this will cause me to be given over to Esau.


Rashi is not dealing with a difficulty here, instead he is giving us his "translation" of the Lead Words. Rashi tells us what "katonti" of all the mercies" means? His interpretation is " I have been made small ("my merits are diminished") because ("as a consequence of") all the kindness I have received from Hashem.

This seems clear enough.


But the Ramban does not accept Rashi's interpretation. He says the language here does not support Rashi. The word "katonti" means "I am small" not "I have become small' If it meant, as Rashi says, "I have become small" that Hebrew would be "kutonti." in the passive construction. In addition to this, the Ramban has another reason for disputing Rashi's interpretation. He cites verse 12, further on, where Jacob says :

"And You said 'I will surely do you good (Hebrew: Haitiv, aitiv) and I will make your seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted for its multitude."

Can you understand what the Ramban means? How is this verse a problem for Rashi's p'shat?

Your Answer:


An Answer: The difficulty is: If Rashi says that Jacob is saying "maybe my merits have been depleted because I may have sinned , so I am no longer entitled to G-d's protection" then why does Jacob hark back to G-d's promise (in verse 12)? He already had admitted that the promise may no longer be valid.

Can you defend Rashi?

Hint: See Rashi's comment on verse 12.

Your Answer:


An Answer: Rashi interprets the double verb "Haitiv, aitiv" " I will surely do you good" - as 'Haitiv" in your merit, "aitiv" in your fathers' merits.

So according to Rashi, Jacob is not again asking Hashem to keep His promise to him (Jacob) , (for he may no longer merit that promise). Rather he is asking Hashem to keep His promise to the Forefathers, so even if Jacob himself is not worthy of it, Abraham & Isaac are ( this is the meaning of "aitiv" in your Fathers' merit). Jacob, according to Rashi, is not contradicting himself, as the Ramban sees it.

But what about the Ramban's first point, that grammatically Rashi's interpretation is weak. It should have said "kutonti" and not "kotonti" ?


An Answer: Rashi bases his interpretation on a Gemora (Tractate Shabbat 32a) which cites our verse as evidence that a person should be aware that if miracles are done for him, he loses some of his merits. Our verse, as Rashi interprets it, (not as the Ramban does) is the reason the Talmud cites as proof of this idea. So Rashi has justification for interpreting the verse as he does, in spite of the grammatical difficulty.

Can you see why verse 12 is not a difficulty for the Ramban's interpretation?

Your Answer:


An Answer: Since the Ramban is saying that Jacob says to Hashem: I am too small for all the kindness You have bestowed upon me" verse 12 presents no difficulty, because Jacob is saying: You promised to protect me although I was not worthy of it, so I ask You to keep that promise, even if I am not worth it.


It is important to note another difference between Rashi & the Ramban, in interpreting this verse. The verse says (in transliteration) "Katonti mikal hachasadim ...' How should we transliterate the letter "mem" in the word "mikal" ? It could mean: 1) "from - that is, because of or due to" or 2) "more than" a "mem" of comparison. This means in this verse, "smaller than" meaning Jacob is smaller than all the kindness Hashem has given him.

We can see that Rashi chooses #1 while the Ramban chooses # 2. Rashi says Jacob is saying: I am small (my merits diminished) due to all the kindness I have already received. The Ramban, on the other hand, says: "I am smaller than (in comparison to) all the kindness You have given me."

We find a similar difference in translating a "mem" in a famous verse in Psalms

Psalms 119: 99. ..." I will transliterate it first: "Mikal melamdi hiskalti"

The common translation is : " From all my teachers I have become wise" here the "mem" means: From them I received my wisdom.

But others (Ibn Ezra) translates the "mem" differently. They say "More than my teachers I have become wise." Here the "mem" is one of comparison, as the Ramban's translation in our verse.

Clearly both are valid interpretations of the prefix "mem."


In this dispute Rashi follows the Sages of the Talmud, while the Ramban does not. This is a common difference between their respective interpretive styles in their Torah commentaries.


I would point another idea (not connected with the above analysis) of what can be learned from Jacob's words. He says in the second half of this verse "for (only) with my staff I crossed over this Jordan and now I have become two camps!"

Jacob is grateful to G-d for giving him "two camps". But these two camps are the result of Jacob's fear the Esau will destroy his family, if they remain together as one camp. So for protection Jacob, divided his group into two camps ! The division was the result of a negative situation - fear of Esau's aggression. Yet Jacob saw the positive in the negative and thanked Hashem for his "two camps."

Shabbat Shalom
Avigdor Bonchek

"What's Bothering Rashi?" is produced by the Institute for the Study of Rashi and Early Commentaries. The five volume set of "What's Bothering Rashi?" is available at all Judaica bookstores.

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