Jacob and the Loss of Merit

Rabbi Israel Chait

Student’s notes from a discussion on 5/19/20

The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esav; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.” Jacob was greatly frightened; this vexed him, and he divided the people with him and the flocks and herds and camels into two camps, thinking, “If Esav comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.”  Then Jacob said, “God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, God, who said to me, ‘Return to your native land and I will deal goodly with you’!  I am unworthy of all the kindness and all the truth that You have shown Your servant: with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esav; lest he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike. Yet You have said, ‘I will deal bountifully with you and make your offspring as the sands of the sea, which are too numerous to count’” (Gen. 32:8-13).

Rashi comments: 

My merits are diminished in consequence of all the kindness and truth which You have already shown me. For this reason I am afraid: perhaps, since You made these promises to me, I have become defiled by sin, and this may cause me to be delivered unto Esav’s power (Shabbat 32a).

Rashi says that Jacob felt, “Maybe my merit decreased,” and “Maybe I was defiled with sin.” According to Rashi, what is the uniformity of these two ideas?

Gemara Shabbos 32a warns one from risking danger and relying on a miracle to be saved, citing this case regarding Jacob. However, as Jacob didn’t place himself in danger, how does the gemara cite Jacob as an example?

This idea that one loses his merit because God changes natural law to save him, is questionable. How does providence decrease one’s merit? And in general, why should one lose his merit, he should retain it.   

The principle is that when a miracle occurs for a person, he cant help but feel a certain egotistical pride that hashgacha (God’s providence) is with him. His feeling of being “close to God” is egotistical, and actually removes him from God.  This is why he loses his merits. The gemara says that an egotistical person cant live in the same world with God: God says, “He and I can’t live in one world.” [Human life has but one focus, and that is God. With focussing on oneself, one lives not in God’s world.]

God promised Jacob kindness, and then fulfilled His word—God’s “truth.”  Thereby, Jacob feared that he was “defiled by sin” through his view of God being close to him. This can happen to one who is completely blinded to true reality; he is convinced by a false notion in his mind: a notion that he is close to God. But in fact, he has deviated and fallen prey to a blind spot in his mind which is brought about when God promised him kindness, and He came through. That’s like experiencing a miracle [both are divine benefits] and why the gemara cites this case. Once one feels that God is with him, one doesn’t introspect, and he is not careful about his decisions. He can blindly commit the worst sins. Rashi learns “katonti” (“my merit decreased”) means that as God came through on His promises, Jacob grew small. Through his assuredness of “being with God,” Jacob could be blinded from sin and he worried that this had occurred. 

This answers our 3 questions: 1) Why should one forfeit his merit through God’s kindness? 2) What is the uniformity in Rashi’s two parts? 3) How does the gemara in Shabbos correlate Jacob to relying on a miracle?

Ramban raises a strong question on Rashi: If Jacob felt unworthy of God’s kindness, how could Jacob then ask God to save him, saying, “Yet You have said, ‘I will deal bountifully with you and make your offspring as the sands of the sea”? (Ibid. 32:13)

We answer as follows. Here, Jacob asked for God’s kindness, but not due to his own merit. Citing these words “hatave aytiv; I will deal bountifully,” Jacob invoked God’s kindness on account of Abraham. Rashi comments, “I will also do good to thee on account of your father’s merits.” Jacob asked not for God to do good for his sake, but for what He promised to Abraham. The promise Jacob cites here “and make your offspring as the sands of the sea” was a promise to Abraham, not to Jacob. Thereby, Ramban’s question is answered: Jacob pleaded with God not due to his merit which he might have lost, but due to God’s promise to Abraham.