June 20, 2024
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Rising Up Through Raising Up

Anticipating a heated confrontation with his big brother Eisav, the Torah surprisingly tells us that Yaakov “became extremely afraid” (Bereishit 32:8). Why was he so afraid of Eisav? The Da’at Zekeinim gives two explanations: 1) Either he was afraid that Eisav exceeded him in the area of honoring one’s parents, and that merit would prevail and deem Eisav more worthy to win the battle 2) Or he was afraid that Eisav’s merit of living in Eretz Yisrael would prevail and deem him more worthy to win the battle.

It seems that Yaakov was deeply concerned that a single merit of Eisav—either that of honoring one’s parents, or that of living in Eretz Yisrael—would be so significant that Eisav would be granted victory in the upcoming battle.

If we could briefly put things in perspective. Yaakov versus Eisav: Yaakov: a pure person, dwelling in the tents of Torah study, learning straight for 14 years in the yeshiva of Shem and Ever. An upright, honest and just individual whose image God keeps on His throne, and is considered to be the “choicest one” of the Avot. Eisav: a hunter, murderer, deceiver, idolater and a promiscuous individual. A person who gave up his birthright (bechora) for a simple bowl of lentils. Who wins? From our perspective, it seems obvious that Yaakov should have nothing to fear, so why did he?

R’ Yaakov Neiman (Darkei Mussar) explains a difference between how a regular person perceives others, as opposed to how a great person perceives others. A regular person who interacts with others isn’t necessarily focused on another person’s positive qualities and searching to discover them. However, a great person is constantly looking for attributes in others that are empowering, which are uniquely superior, so that he himself can learn from it. When this great person finds even one positive quality in the other that he himself does not yet possess, he accords him with tremendous honor, becomes submissive, and even fears him. Even if this great person himself has many, many more positive qualities than the other, nevertheless, if he sees in the other even one positive quality that he himself does not yet possess—this causes a trigger response in which he reflects “maybe I am not doing enough, maybe my intentions aren’t as pure as they should be, maybe I am indeed falling short of my potential and responsibility.” This self reflection is naturally humbling, and can therefore cause a reverence for the other, and in Yaakov’s case specifically—can also even a fear that perhaps Eisav really is greater. Hence Yaakov’s fear and doubts about who would win the battle.

Says R’ Neiman, this is the dichotomy within the mindframe of a great person: On the one hand he is always suspecting himself that perhaps he didn’t do enough and needs to strive for more, whereas when perceiving another, he judges them favorably.

Orchot Tzaddikim (gate of humility) notes a similar idea: A pious person was asked why he merited to be the leader of his generation. He responded that the reason is “because any person who I would interact with, I would consider them to be better than me. If the other was wiser than me, I would say, ‘Due to his wisdom, he must have more yirat Hashem than me.’ If the other was less than me in wisdom I would say, ‘His transgressions are unintentional, whereas mine are intentional.’ If I was older than him, I would say, ‘His transgressions are less than mine.’ If he was equal to me in wisdom and age, I would say, ‘His heart is in more of the right place than mine, for I know the transgressions that I have done, whereas I don’t know his.’ If he was wealthier than me, I would say, ‘He does more tzedakah than I do.’” The pious person concluded, “In this way I accorded honor to people, and would humble myself before them.”

While Yaakov saw internal qualities in Eisav such as the good deeds he performed and raised up Eisav, this pious person took it to a different level and raised up others simply by seeing external qualities in them such as wisdom, age and even financial status, thus assuming the best in them.

We learn from the above the exalted level one can reach, which is not only being nonjudgmental with others when interacting with them, but to invest our energy to search for something in them that can be judged in a favorable way, to raise them up, and thus learn from them. Pirkei Avot (chp. 4) says, “Who is a wise person? One who learns from every person.” Perhaps we can explain that every person has at least something that stands out in relation to where we are holding in life [As Ramban (Igeret Haramban) writes that any person we see, to try to find a positive quality in them that we don’t possess], and thus, one who strives to attain wisdom looks for the good in every person so that he can learn from it. Not only can this raise another person up in his own eyes, it can also raise ourselves up in wisdom and deed.


Binyamin Benji is a graduate of Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan and Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He can be reached at [email protected].

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