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Thursday, February 22, 2024 - 13 Adar I 5784
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Becoming Small

It’s natural when you are victorious to feel on top of the world and attribute your success to your own efforts. With our forefather Jacob, however, we find the reverse. After he successfully crossed the Jordan with his family and great wealth, he turned to G-d and said, “I am humbled by all the kindness.” He had left his homeland with only his walking stick and was now returning with great abundance.

This week marks the 19th of Kislev, the festival of liberation of the first Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman. After his release from Czarist prison, where he was incarcerated due to slander from Jewish opponents of his teachings, he penned a letter to all his chassidim entitled “Katonti,” I am humbled. In it he writes: “For every kindness that G-d does for a person, he should be very humbled… because G-d has brought him close…” The closer one becomes to G-d, the humbler one becomes, as he becomes aware of the contrast between himself and G-d. Rabbi Schneur Zalman concluded his letter with a warning to his students and chassidim, not to become arrogant by their victory and in particular, not to speak defiantly against their opponents but to speak softly. Perhaps if they show a restrained spirit, their opponents will respond in kind, “as water reflects a face.”

Although G-d had promised to protect Jacob, he was nevertheless reluctant to rely on that promise. Due to his great humility, he was worried that perhaps he had used up his merits and was no longer worthy of G-d’s protection.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe asks why Jacob was worried that he had used up all his merits. Didn’t he know that he had not sinned? He explains that when we climb from one level to another, our old level of achievement is no longer satisfying and seems to be deficient in comparison to the new. That is why, as we rise higher and higher, we become humbler. From our new vantage point we see how little we’ve achieved and how far we still have to go.

Furthermore, becoming small and diminished is a necessary step before rising to a higher level. For example, let’s say you have achieved a high level of mastery at your current job. Your employer notices and promotes you to a higher position with greater responsibility. You now move from a position where you were highly competent and successful to an area where you are a novice. Suddenly you are not achieving at the same level as before. You may look around and feel like you know nothing! But in truth you are rising and facing a new challenge. This is a temporary interim stage, where you are no longer using the old skills but have still have not mastered the new. But once you cross that threshold you will find yourself at a far higher stage of achievement.

When the Alter Rebbe was imprisoned, it was a challenge on his approach to disseminating Chassidic teachings. After he was released, he began to teach Chassidus with far greater breadth and intensity than ever before. But during the interim stage, while he was actually in prison, he felt small. He had lost the old and had not yet gained the new.

It is no coincidence that the Torah portion of Vayishlach is read each year right before the 19th of Kislev. There’s a dual message for us: Not to become arrogant from G-d’s kindness, and not to be deterred by temporary setbacks. Even in situations where we seem to have brought low, this, too, is part of the Divine plan, leading to a greater elevation.



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