“I have been made small from all of the kindness and all of the truth which You have done for [me]” (Genesis 32:11)

How should one respond to a favor?

In last week’s reading, we learned how Jacob was forced to flee from home in order to escape from his brother Esau. In this week’s portion we read how—after thirty-four years in hiding—Jacob returns home to finally confront him. Preparing for their meeting, Jacob prays that G‑d should deliver him safely from this ordeal, despite being—in his own estimation—unworthy of this favor. Jacob sees himself as “small,” as lacking merit and undeserving of G‑d’s help.

But why did Jacob see himself as “small” and unworthy?

During the years away from home, Jacob faced many spiritual and material challenges. Yet, despite it all, he was able to marry, raise a family, prosper financially and retain his spiritual and moral ideals. G‑d had clearly been with Jacob, guiding him and protecting him all the time. So, after seeing G‑d’s revealed providence throughout all of his previous ordeals, why wouldn’t he just assume that G‑d would see him though this next travail?

The answer is that there are two diametrically opposed ways to react to a favor. For Jacob, the multitude of blessings in his life is precisely what led him to believe that he was unworthy of Divine aid at this time. Rather than becoming sure of himself, Jacob was instead humbled by all of the blessings in his life. To his thinking, whatever little merit he may have possessed had certainly already been expended, and he had no right to expect any further kindness from G‑d.

When we view things from an ego perspective, the more favors G‑d grants us, the more outrageously entitled we feel. Invoking a warped logic that cites our good fortune as the very proof of our worthiness, we audaciously lay claim to all sorts of expectations. We feel downright affronted when we are not given our due. But from a selfless, spiritual point of view, the more G‑d gives kindness to us, the more overwhelmed with gratitude and humility we become.

One of the great truths of life is expressed in Jacob’s feeling “small” in the face of Divine favor. It’s a simple calculation, really. Here’s how it goes: Since our blessings are a result of G‑d bringing us close to Him, and next to the Infinite all are as absolute naught, then the closer G‑d brings us to Him, the more obviously insignificant we become.

A key to our recovery has been in developing a sense of humility. In the beginning, broken as we were, we had little choice but to accept humility—or perhaps humiliation, as it were. But as we grow in recovery and G‑d continues to show us His kindness, we are easily lured back into a false sense of entitlement. Perhaps things have begun to change for the better because we deserve it, we think. Maybe we have finally earned a better life for ourselves.

That is one way to look at it—a selfish way, an un-G‑dly way. As for us, we must try to see things like Jacob, never forgetting that the closer G‑d brings us to Him, the more keenly aware of our own utter nothingness that should make us.