Remember doing something so embarrassingly stupid as a child that even now the memory of that moment makes you blush? Or do you remember being bullied? Think back to that sharp agony of ignominy, and I bet you can even now taste the bile and smell the sickly smell of your own humiliation.

Memories are powerful. They can pull you back into the moment with such clarity that you would swear you are still there.

I remember as a 14-year-old, away from home for the first time, studying in an overseas yeshiva. I had received a birthday/Chanukah present from my parents, and wanted to write a thank-you note, which would simultaneously demonstrate that I was really studying Torah and not wasting my time.

I found a verse in this week’s Torah portion where Jacob expresses his thanks to G‑d for the kindnesses he'd received to date: kotonti mikol hachasodim—“I have been humbled from all the kindnesses.”1 And thus I started off my letter to home: “Dear Daddy and Mommy, kotonti mikol hachasodim . . .”

My stupidity was in leaving the unfinished letter lying around for others to read and make fun of.

Thinking back, I can see the humor of a 14-year-old starting a letter with such affected pomposity, but at the time I was mortified by the teasing I received.

Interestingly, according to one of the explanations of the above verse, Jacob too was at that time summoning up remembrances of past humiliations.

Jacob was seemingly riding high. The down-at-the-heels pauper who had stumbled into the country but a few short years before, had been transformed into a wealthy magnate with an excess of possessions, four wives and a host of children. Strange, then, for Jacob to declaim kotonti—“I feel low, unworthy, diminished.”

For a person to grow, to develop, one first must undergo a process of diminishment. Every accomplishment is preceded by a period of struggle. Strength, for example, is developed by tearing one’s muscles during exercise. Over the following few days the body repairs itself and larger muscles grow. Similarly, any new intellectual achievement demands focusing one’s total concentration on the task at hand, during which time all one’s previous knowledge is not only useless but distracting.

Some people can’t do it. They get stuck in a zone of comfort. They remain so entranced by their previous accomplishment, their self-image is so locked into their vision of self as is, that they don’t have sufficient breadth of vision to dream of what may be.

Jacob had previously experienced a process of self-development when he first left the comforts of home to travel out into the big wide world. Now, years later, he was traveling back to Israel a self-made man, with the opportunity to relax, comfortable in his past achievements and at ease with his new station in life. By declaring kotonti, Jacob was challenging himself to stay hungry. He was purposely summoning up those powerful memories of previous humiliations and discomfort to guarantee that he enter this new phase of life still unsatisfied, and with a reawakened drive to achieve new success.

His declaration kotonti symbolized a figurative purge of past triumphs. “I revoke everything I have strived for and attained till now,” said Jacob, “and commit myself to humbly starting again.”2