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I Deserve Nothing

by Rabbi Yitzchok Ginsburg

  

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The key to improving one's character is the recognition of one's own existential lowliness. To be sure, the basis of all Divine service is the recognition of one's own self-worth. Everyone possesses a unique Divine soul, complete with a full array of the most sublime and noble capacities of intellect and emotion, and this fact itself endows him with inestimable potential and worth. However, greatness carries with it expectations, and thus the very awareness of our own great worth paradoxically makes us painfully aware of how dismally we have betrayed it. In fact, the more one becomes attuned to and appreciates the exaltedness of his Divine soul, the more his own self-estimation plummets when measured against the record of his faithfulness to it.

King David epitomized this humility. When chastised by his wife Michal for seeming to demean the office of the king by publicly dancing before the Ark of the Covenant, he said, "I am [and shall always remain] lowly in my own eyes" (Samuel 2 6:22).

One's essential shame before G-d is that the vast majority of his thoughts and sensations in life are void of Divine consciousness. Jewish faith affirms that "there is no space void of Him" (Tikunei Zohar 57 [91b]), "space" meaning not only physical space, but psychological space as well (Sod Hashem Lireiav, ch. 3). Every thought and sensation occupies space in one's consciousness. It is our purpose on earth to fill all such space with the awareness of G-d's omnipresence. When we fail to do this, we stand before G-d as a vessel empty of G-dliness, and therefore full of shame, for just as nature abhors a vacuum, the mind cannot remain empty. If it is not filled with holy thoughts, it will by default be filled with unholy ones.

the very awareness of our own great worth paradoxically makes us painfully aware of how dismally we have betrayed it
When one is aware of his own lowliness, he no longer makes demands on others or expects to receive anything from them; he knows that he deserves "nothing." This applies to one's relationship to G-d, as well. To the extent one cultivates true humility, he will consider all the infinite goodness G-d showers upon him throughout life to be undeserved (as is stated in Psalms 16:2, "You do not owe me the goodness that I receive").

This humility was also exemplified by the patriarch Jacob. When he was about to confront his brother Esau after having fled from him for thirty-four years, he prayed to G-d for protection, saying, "I have been humbled by all the loving-kindness and truth which You have done with your servant" (Genesis 32:11). He felt that whatever merits he might have possessed had been more than exhausted by the infinite kindnesses G-d had bestowed upon him already.

The Torah states that this attitude is a dominant trait of the Jewish people: the more goodness they receive, the humbler they become. In Rashi's commentary on the scripture, he explains: "'You are the least of all peoples' (Deuteronomy 7:7) for you [by your very nature] are continually diminishing yourselves, as did Abraham when he said 'For I am dust and ashes' (Genesis 28:27), and as did Moses and Aaron, who said, 'What are we?' (Exodus 16:7)." In contrast, an evil trait is when success and prosperity inflate the ego, since this self-reinforcing conceit convinces one that all his accomplishments and fortune are due to his own efforts or merits (Tanya, Igeret HaKodesh, ch. 2).


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RELATED CATEGORIES

Philosophy
Mitzvot » Love thy Neighbor

Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Zohar
The most basic work of Jewish mysticism. Authored by Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai in the 2nd century.
Rashi
Acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105). Legendary French scholar who authored the fundemental and widely accepted "Rashi commentary" on the entire Bible and Talmud.
Moses
[Hebrew pronunciation: Moshe] Greatest prophet to ever live. Led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage amidst awesome miracles; brought down the Tablets from Mount Sinai; and transmitted to us word-for-word the Torah he heard from G-d's mouth. Died in the year 1272 BCE.
Tanya
Foundation text of Chabad chassidism. Authored by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad movement, and first published in 1796. Considered to be the "Bible" of Chassidism.
Abraham
First Jew, and first of our three Patriarchs. Born into a pagan society in Mesepotamia in 1812 BCE, he discovered monethieism on his own. He was told by G-d to journey to the Land of Canaan where he and his wife Sarah would give birth to the Jewish People.
Hashem
"The Name." Out of respect, we do not explicitly mention G-d's name, unless in the course of prayer. Instead, "Hashem" is substituted.
Jacob
Third of the three Patriarchs and father of the Twelve Tribes. Lived most his life in Canaan and died in Egypt in 1505 BCE. Also known by the name of "Israel."
Esau
Rogue son of Patriarch Isaac and Matriarch Rebecca. Elder twin of Patriarch Jacob.
Aaron
Brother of Moses. First High Priest of Israel and progenitor of all Kohanim (priests) until this very day. Died in the year 1272 b.c.e.
Genesis
The first book of the Five Books of Moses. It records the story of Creation and its aftermath, and chronicles the lives of the Patriarchs.
Samuel
1. A prophet and judge who appointed Saul as the first king of Israel in the 9th century BCE. 2. One of the 24 books of the Bible, named after the abovementioned Samuel, one of the main characters of the book.
David
King of Israel who succeeded Saul, becoming king of Israel in 876 BCE. Originally a shepherd, he became popular after he killed the Philistine strongman, Goliath. He is the progenitor of the Davidic royal dynasty -- which will return to the throne with the arrival of King Messiah.
Psalms
The Book of Psalms. One of the 24 books of the Bible. Compiled by King David; mostly comprised of poetic praise for G-d. A large part of our prayers are culled from this book.
Exodus
1. The miraculous departure of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage in 1312 BCE. 2. The second of the Five Books of Moses. This book describes the aforementioned Exodus, the giving of the Torah, and the erection of the Tabernacle.
Deuteronomy
The fifth of the Five Books of Moses. This book is a record of the monologue which Moses spoke to the Israelites in the five weeks prior to his passing.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.