By Rabbi Yitzchok D. Frankel
Agudath Israel of the Five Towns
When it comes to gashmiyus, i.e., a person’s material possessions and the fulfillment of his physical needs, a person needs to know that he has only what Hashem wants him to have. As a recipient of Hashem’s beneficence, it is incumbent to understand this. We find this exemplified in Parashas Vayishlach. When Yaakov wants to grant Eisav gifts, Eisav initially declines by saying (Bereishis 33:9): “I have a great amount (rav).” Rashi (ibid., v. 11) compares this remark with Yaakov’s, who says, “I have everything” (ibid.).
Rashi brings out a world of difference between these statements. Yaakov expresses that he has all he needs, whereas Eisav arrogantly expresses that he has much more than he needs. In other words, Yaakov recognizes that he has only what Hashem wants him to have—no more and no less.
In other matters, this is not so. When it comes to a person’s feelings of happiness, satisfaction, fulfillment, contentment, etc., a different set of rules applies. We see this in our parashah. When Yaakov Avinu finds out that Yosef is alive, it is written: “And the spirit of Yaakov their father was revived. And Israel said, ‘It is great (rav); my son Yosef still lives!’” (Bereishis 45:27–28).
Here, Yaakov Avinu does not say as before; rather he employs the term “rav.” A person must understand that when it comes to the pleasures of this world, nothing is merited. Nobody “owes” him anything. The blessings of this world that Hashem gives a person are not something deserved. Rather, a person should take the attitude of “katonti mikol hachasadim,” that everything is chesed. When it comes to the experience of joy, it is all part of a special berachah from Above. That may be termed “rav.” The joy that Yaakov Avinu experienced was actually beyond what he believed he needed or deserved; it was a special act of kindness from Hashem, and he had a special level of hakaras ha’tov to Hashem for it. Thus, he described it as “rav.”
We find a similar thought in the Maharal (Gevuros Hashem, ch. 6). Commenting on the mitzvos that a person reaps benefits (peiros) from in this world (Mishnah, Peah 1:1), he explains that the satisfaction and sense of gratification that a person has from doing such mitzvos is actually the benefit that accrues to him in this world. Examples of such mitzvos are doing chesed, honoring one’s parents, Torah learning, etc. All of these are good for the world and its inhabitants. The benefit in this world emanates, says the Maharal, from Hashem’s kindness. He gives us these opportunities that bear this satisfaction and sense of accomplishment. Still, this is not defined as actual reward for the mitzvah. It is not something that is “earned” or rightfully coming due to our having done the mitzvah.
Yet our service of Hashem would be no different without this added benefit that we receive. Our responsibilities and requirements would be absolutely the same even if we did not have these advantages. It is merely a kindness on the part of Hashem that we receive them. It would certainly be a lot more difficult, from our perspective, to do what we must if we would never feel any fulfillment or receive any benefit from it. If we would not experience joy and satisfaction in anything we did, it would be a depressing situation. And Hashem in His kindness did not wish it to be that way.
That is the “rav” that Yaakov Avinu was expressing when he heard that Yosef was alive.
We see this idea expressed also in Parashas Sh’mos: “And G‑d bestowed goodness upon the midwives, and the people increased and became very powerful. And it was that because the midwives feared G‑d, that He made for them houses” (Sh’mos 1:20–21).
The above verse tells us that G‑d bestowed goodness upon Miriam and Yocheved, who saved the male babies from Pharaoh’s harsh decree. Rashi explains: “What was the goodness? ‘That He made for them houses.’” (Rashi, ad loc.).
Superficially, this comment of Rashi does not seem to sit so well with the verses it is coming to explain. There is a big gap in the verses between “And G‑d bestowed goodness” and “That He made for them houses.” After mentioning G‑d’s goodness to the midwives, the verse instead says, “And the people increased and became very powerful.”
We could say that when the midwives saw their actions come to fulfillment (“the people increased”) and thus knew that their efforts were not for naught, this itself was the goodness bestowed upon them. Accordingly, Rashi understood that the fulfillment and contentment of seeing the success of one’s good deeds is not the actual reward; rather, it is merely the benefits reaped in this world. That is what brought Rashi to explain the actual reward of the midwives as the Houses of Kehunah, Leviyah, and Malchus that they eventually received.
This could also explain why Hashem’s trait of mercy, known as Rav Chesed, is not called simply chesed or oseh chesed. It is because Hashem’s chesed, emanating from an infinite source without any basis in the merit or worthiness of the recipient, is described as “rav.”
I subsequently found this concept expressed by the Malbim in his commentary on Sefer Tehillim:
“It is among the qualities of Chesed that it never is finished. For Rachamim and all the other midos are dependent on the recipient of the Rachamim or the Chaninah. It is according to his state or according to his deeds. But it is not this way with Chesed; it comes from G‑d’s side and is not according to the recipient. About this was said (Yeshayah 54:8): ‘With eternal chesed, I have shown compassion for you . . .’” (Malbim, Tehillim 85:8).
“Chesed is the name given to what is done without obligation and without a prior promise, even if the recipient of the chesed is not worthy of it according to his deeds. And also chesed attributed to Hashem, in its proper meaning, refers to a miracle that is above the ways of nature” (ibid., 107:1).
Rabbi Frankel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. At local stores: Machat shel Yad Sh’mos.