God's Love For Us, Despite Our Unworthiness

December 1st: Vayishlach
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

The Torah portion this week starts with some high anxiety. Jacob is returning to the Land of Canaan (at the instruction of the Lord) and sends word to his brother Esau. As you may recall, there was some hostility between the brothers when last they met. Jacob stole Esau’s blessing, and Esau’s response was to threaten Jacobs’ life. So, with maturity and wealth and the passage of some twenty –one years, Jacob is hoping for a peaceful welcoming. The anxiety explodes when the messengers return with this news: “Esau himself is coming to meet you, and he has 400 men with him.” (Genesis 32.7) It does not say “400 armed and angry men,” but that is what Jacob seems to hear.

Greatly frightened, he divides his retinue into two camps—so that, at least, one can escape, and then he turns to God in prayer: “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord, who said to me, ‘Return to your native land and I will deal bountifully with you!’ 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. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, 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.” (Genesis 31.10-13)

Part of Jacob’s pitch is to remind God that this return trip is only because of God’s instruction. “You’re sending me on this journey. It isn’t to get me killed, is it?” Added to this is the promise, mentioned twice in a fairly brief prayer, that God has promised to take care of Jacob and his growing family—to “deal bountifully” with them. A massacre would spoil everything—for God (and us)! Yes, Jacob is using every argument he can muster. “Please, O Lord, save us!”

Nestled within his plaintive plea is a note of theological import. “I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant…” We usually think of unworthiness as something we are supposed to feel at Yom Kippur, when we ask for God’s forgiveness yet another time. However, this is an important theological concept that is a pillar of Judaism and a distinguishing concept from our sister religion, Christianity.

We often hear our Christian friends (especially the missionaries) speak of our sinfulness as being so significant that we can never do enough good deeds to outweigh our inherent unworthiness. Their answer is God’s grace—a love and forgiveness which people do not deserve, but that they get anyway through God’s overwhelming love and, of course, through the agency of believing in Jesus. The Jewish answer is that God knows about our imperfect nature, forgiving us when we sincerely repent and working with us in making better decisions.

In both, there is the notion of God’s love for us despite our unworthiness and how that love keeps us in God’s good graces. In Jewish theology, two terms are used to describe this concept, chen and chesed. Chen is usually translated as grace—and is the basis of many popular Jewish names: Hannah, Johanna, Ann, Johanan/John, and Henry. Chesed is usually translated as mercy or loving kindness. “The idea that God does not forget the undeserving is usually expressed by the divine quality of chesed; for instance, in II Sam. 7:15 (God's mercy will not depart from David's offspring even if they commit iniquity) and in other places like Isaiah 54:8. Since Christianity adopted the Pauline emphasis on grace and considered Jesus Christ its main vehicle, the English term grace has been avoided by Jewish writers, even though its antecedents in the Hebrew Bible are firm and formidable.” [CCAR Responsa Committee]

In Jacob’s prayer, the word used is chesed, and our translation renders it as kindness. This is similar to the use of the word in Simon the Righteous’ famous saying in Pirke Avot (1.2): “On three things does the world stand: on Torah, on Worship, and on gemilut chasadim, Deeds of Lovingkindness.” The famed archeologist and President of the Hebrew Union College (and cousin of Rabbi Jonathan Brown), Dr. Nelson Glueck, wrote his whole dissertation on this word and its many understandings (Das Vort Hesed). He maintains that the use of the word chesed involves a covenant of love or loyalty. It is not just kindness for kindness’s sake, nor is it a random, unconnected kind of decency. Chesed is kindness that is part of a relationship—and an expression of the devotion in the relationship.

As a descendant of Abraham and Isaac, Jacob is already part of that covenantal relationship with the Almighty. He also has his own covenant with God—spoken by God during the dream of the Stairway connecting Heaven and Earth, and affirmed by him the next morning. Jacob is thus reminding God of their relationship and affirming his own devotion.

An individual’s devotion to God--both in our time and in ages past—is a fluid commodity. We waver in our attitudes about God and the spiritual, and our behaviors often reflect that inconsistency. It is part of the human condition for we are called upon to live in both the spiritual and the physical worlds. Nonetheless, we are taught, God’s love for us, both chesed/kindness and chen/grace are ever-present and ever-strong. Though Jacob and we may not always remember it, God is with us, helping us, and pulling for us to be successful.