Wednesday, November 17, 2010

one's own merit

What did Ya’akov Avinu mean by telling Eisav, “Va'yehi li shor va’chamor…”? Was the point to demonstrate the Eisav how rich he had become? That wouldn’t do much to appease Eisav! Rashi already addresses the point, but I’ll add 2 cents of my own.

In last week’s parsha of VaYeitzei Hashem appeared to Ya’akov in a dream – “Ani Hashem, Elokei Avraham avicha, Elokei Yitzchak…” – and promised to protect Ya’akov until his return home (28:15).

Ya’akov responded by taking a neder – “Im yi’hiye Elokim imadi ushmarani… v’shavti b’shalom el beis avi…” – that if Hashem protects him and ensures his safe return home he will dedicate ma’aser (28:20-21)

What did Ya’akov mean when he said, “Im…,”If Hashem will protect me….?” Hashem had just appeared to Ya’akov and promised him that and more! Why should Ya’akov have been worried, why should he have taken a neder -- what more did Ya’akov want?

A careful reading of Hashem's promise and Ya'akov's response reveals a crucial difference between them. Hashem introduced himself to Ya’akov as the “G-d of Avraham and Yitzchak.” Ya’akov was being offered protection based on his zechus avos, based on his lineage, his family, what his ancestors accomplished. Ya’akov’s neder, however, asked for a promise for Hashem to be “with him” – not just a guarantee based on zechus avos, but a guarantee based on his personal relationship with Hashem (Meir Einei Chachaim, see also Kli Yakar for a similar approach). Ya'akov did not want a gift of protection -- he wanted to earn it. Ya'akov did not want to live off the merit of his forefather's faith -- he wanted to transform that faith into his own.

Our forefathers established a bank account with Hashem. They made deposits, they built their credit. Eventually, we inherit that account. We can make withdrawals, we can ask for a loan, we can get credit based on that account, but loans and interest come at a cost. At some point we have to pay up or lose the account and our creditworthiness. Ya’akov did not want a loan or a withdrawal – he wanted to be a depositor. We each are handed that account to steward. Don’t overdraw. Make your own deposits.

Ya’akov was telling Eisav in our parsha that his success did not come about because of Yitzchak’s bracha alone. “Va'yehi li shor va’chamor” – “I have oxen and donkeys…” All that success, said Ya'akov, came to me, it came through my own efforts; it was not inherited, it was not a gift. There is nothing you, Eisav, can complain about because you had the same opportunity to make it on your own.

It's important to note that despite this self confident proclamation, when Ya’akov davened to be spared pain from Eisav, he did not invoke his own merit, but instead invoked Hashem’s relationship with his father and grandfather, his zechus avos: “Elokei avi Avraham v’Elokei avi Yitzchak…,” . “Katonti m’kol hachasadim…,” Ya’akov declared himself personally unworthy of the success he enjoyed (32:10-11)

It seems that in dealing with Eisav, in dealing with the outside world, one needs to feel secure and successful in one’s own religious achievements. Zechus avos, the fact that your grandfather or father may have a certain tradition, in and of itself is not enough to ward off challenges. One must develop one’s own religious identity.

Yet, at the same time, confidence in one’s own identity should never blind one to the fact that so much is owed to the past. Whatever deposits one may make into one’s spiritual bank account are dwarfed by the interest and credit that has been accumulated by others. One must never lost one's sense of perspective and humility.

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