This week my kids and I have been reading the book Older Than Dirt: A Wild but True History of Earth. It explores how the world came to be over the course of billions of years. The vastness of time, the evolution of all things that live, and their precariousness. Mass extinctions, minerals, fossils. It's all rather miraculous.
Did you know there was half a billion years where the earth was a giant river of volcanic lava?! And that the moon was formed when it crashed into earth. At first it was so close to our planet that days were only five hours long. And every year it moves one inch further away. Perhaps most astonishingly, modern humans are but the last two seconds on the 24-hour clock of the earth! The entire book is in many ways a macro-meditation on our smallness.
As it turns out, this week's parsha, Vayishlach, offers a micro-meditation on our smallness. Jacob returns to the Holy Land after twenty years of absence. His first act is to send messengers to his brother Esau, with hopes of reconciliation. Jacob sends his family ahead as he waits for Esau. Fearful for his life, he prays to God, in what Avivah Zornberg describes as "the first quoted prayer in the Torah" (Desire, 216).
Having invoked the God of his father Abraham, he begins:
קָטֹ֜נְתִּי מִכֹּ֤ל הַחֲסָדִים֙ וּמִכָּל־הָ֣אֱמֶ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִׂ֖יתָ אֶת־עַבְדֶּ֑ךָ כִּ֣י בְמַקְלִ֗י עָבַ֙רְתִּי֙ אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֣ן הַזֶּ֔ה וְעַתָּ֥ה הָיִ֖יתִי לִשְׁנֵ֥י מַחֲנֽוֹת׃
I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant: with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps (Genesis 32:11).
The word in Hebrew, ubiquitously translated as "unworthy" is actually the root קטן (k-t-n), meaning small or insignificant. It is the same word used to describe a minor and a younger sibling. It is a word of relative importance or size.
Ibn Ezra, known for his tendencies towards grammatical correctness, translates Jacob's prayer as "I am too small..." In this moment, Jacob assumes a posture of humility as he approaches the Holy One in prayer and praise for the goodness in his life.
So many times reading this book with my kids I thought to myself, "I am too small. I am unworthy of the kindness in my life." Given all of planetary existence, we are but specks of dust, sparks of light scattered about metabolizing light and water and trying to evolve. And in the process we are blessed in a myriad of ways with hesed and emet, kindness and truth, compassion and promises.
No doubt we are each responsible in some ways for the goodness that has come into our lives. But there is a deeper level on which we are unworthy recipients, humble servants of something larger and beyond ourselves.
In the words of the poet Naomi Shihab Nye:
"Since there is no place larger enough
To contain so much happiness (read: kindness, goodness, blessing)
You shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
Into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
For the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
And in that way, be known."
This Shabbat, may we be humbled by the clock of the earth and inspired by the prayers of our ancestor Jacob, to let the kindnesses in our lives flow into everything we touch. May we have humility and the courage to take no credit. And in that way be known.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.