Parashat Vayishlah: A little less confidence

Jacob in Parashat Vayishlah and King David in the course of Psalms showcase the important balance between religious confidence and doubt.

 Confidence is even more crucial for healthy and lasting religious growth (photo credit: SYDNEY RAY/UNSPLASH)
Confidence is even more crucial for healthy and lasting religious growth
(photo credit: SYDNEY RAY/UNSPLASH)

Jacob endures a lifetime of confrontation and chaos. He grapples with his father-in-law, wars with the local rapists of Shechem and, toward the end of his life, immigrated to a foreign country – never to return to his homeland. Amid all this drama, his tense face-off with his armed brother – flush with 400 warriors – is the most perilous day of his life.

Having been assured of divine protection, logically he should feel confident about his prospects. In addition to that divine guarantee, Jacob enjoys the support and protection of a vast entourage of family, slaves and cattle. No longer a penniless and lonely man barely escaping Esau’s clutches, he is now the leader of an impressive clan. Finally, he should take reasonable confidence in his past struggles, having survived 20 years of a devious father-in-law. As he faces off against Esau, Jacob has every reason for supreme confidence in his ultimate victory.

Yet, surprisingly, he is agitated with worry. Nervous of the outcome, he adopts numerous strategies to assure victory or, at least, to limit the casualties. After dividing his camp into two factions and presenting gifts and tributes to his furious brother, Jacob desperately prays for divine assistance.

Conceding his fears to God, he famously acknowledges: “Katonti” (literally “I am small”) – an iconic phrase which perfectly captures his shrunken confidence. It seems odd that a person of such colossal faith and of such mighty religious achievement should feel so tiny.

Apparently, despite his past successes, Jacob has numerous reasons to doubt his future. Looking back, he has benefited from two decades of extraordinary divine intervention. Not only did he survive against all odds, but he returned as the wealthy head of an impressive family. Having received such profuse abundance, perhaps the “divine well” now runs dry, and he can no longer expect future generosity. He doesn’t take the past 20 years for granted.

‘And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother unto the land of Seir, the field of Edom’ (Genesis 32:4) Vayishlah, Genesis 32:4-36:43, is read on December 5. (credit: ISRAEL WEISS)‘And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother unto the land of Seir, the field of Edom’ (Genesis 32:4) Vayishlah, Genesis 32:4-36:43, is read on December 5. (credit: ISRAEL WEISS)

Additionally, he was concerned with conspicuous shortcomings in his religious behavior.

Absent for two decades, he wasn’t available to tend to his aging parents – who, incidentally, continued to be supported by his brother.

Furthermore, Jacob had been missing from the land of God longer than both of his predecessors. Perhaps he can’t just “parachute” into the Promised Land after such a long absence and lay claim against a rival brother, who had labored on for two decades.

Through no fault of his own, Jacob had lapsed in two crucial mitzvot and perhaps the “bill was due.” God doesn’t round off our religious performance. Sins of the righteous are accounted for, just as merits of the wicked are considered. Despite his overall religious accomplishments, Jacob is concerned that even minor sins would compromise his future. He remains vexed with uncertainty.

He is not alone. While he was momentarily worried by the uncertainty of “katonti,” King David is continuously haunted by lack of religious confidence. Facing seemingly endless enemies, he feels lost, taking no solace in any assured outcome. Utterly unconvinced of future security, he desperately clings to God for hope and survival. The sins of his past gnaw at his conscience, thwarting any future optimism. Jacob experiences a flash of uncertainty, but in the Book of Psalms, David is unceasingly immersed in religious insecurity.

JACOB IN Parashat Vayishlah and King David in the course of Psalms showcase the important balance between religious confidence and doubt. Proper calibration of the two is vital for personal achievement, emotional health and, even more so, religious success.

It is obvious that healthy confidence in our abilities and talents is crucial to our general success. It generally improves our self-esteem, leads to better decision-making and motivates hard work.

Confidence is even more crucial for healthy and lasting religious growth. The very concept of religious duty and mitzvah observance exerts formidable pressure on us. Religious shoulders carry great weight and heavy expectations. Too much pressure can quickly spiral into religious despondency, emotional anxiety and obsessive behavior. Too much failure and guilt can create a perpetual sense of religious disappointment.

Religious observance isn’t meant to suffocate our emotional happiness or to cause excess religious nervousness. Serving God is meant to transform us into better and happier versions of ourselves, endowed with the quiet confidence that only faith and belief can supply.

Religion and emotional anxiety are a volatile mix – and one that rarely lasts. Ultimately, too much stress and too much emotional disquiet is unsustainable, and persistent nervousness or guilt often “eject” someone from the orbit of religion. For religious life to be successful and sustainable, it must be anchored in the calm confidence of religious success.

As crucial as confidence is, it is also crucial to sense “under-confidence” and to feel uncertainty. Healthy self-doubt is a gateway to personal growth. Supreme confidence blinds us to ideas beyond our own imagination, whereas intellectual humility compels us to probe for the truths we don’t yet possess. Doubt for the layman is integrity for the scholar. Healthy self-doubt invites self-critique, opening our hearts to the input and corrective wisdoms of others.

Our culture imbues the value of strong confidence, sometimes to the detriment both of intellectual flexibility and attentiveness to differing views.

Self-doubt is even more valuable in our religious practice and experiences. Religion can be defined as an endless pursuit of the Unreachable. Often, moderate religious success breeds contentment and religious stagnation. The Talmud comments that righteous people have no respite, neither in this world nor in the next. Constantly striving for greater spirituality, religious people should always be stretching their religious horizons. Confident in their religious practice, they nonetheless should not be content with their current religious level. We are searching for the infinite. In that search, there is little room for contentment.

Doubt and insecurity help us retain our humility. Self-introspection and self-scrutiny evoke our fragility and our dependence upon a Higher Being. There is a thin line between confidence and swagger, and healthy self-doubt prevents us from crossing it.

Proper “confidence calibration” yields a life of poise. People of poise are fully aware of their talents, just as they admit their limitations. Religiously poised people innately feel confident in their relationship with God. This security provides inner equilibrium and composed religious practice.

However, they always doubt their accomplishments, seeking new vistas for religious opportunity, rather than resting upon past laurels and prior accomplishments. They feel at once large and small.

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.