While mature people recognize that different characteristics can be channeled for the better differently by different people, there are some that we recognize as universal, like kindness, strongly identified with Avraham, or humility, frequently associated with Yakov.
When Yakov arrived at Lavan’s house, he had just the clothes on his back and the staff in his hand. Yet, he left with a large family entourage, thriving livestock, and serious wealth. Evaluating himself, he determined that he was more fortunate than could otherwise be expected:
קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים וּמִכָּל הָאֱמֶת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת עַבְדֶּךָ – I am humbled by all the kindness You have done Your servant. (32:11)
The Ramban explains that Yakov felt that his blessings were grossly disproportionate, far beyond anything he could have deserved, and recognized that God had been generous with him.
The truth is, if we take similar stock of our blessings, most of us will have to admit something similar. Do we deserve our families? Our friends? Our successes? Or even further, to be born into our family, and the privileges that came along with? Do we deserve to have been born in the most healthy and wealthy era in human history? Can we truly say that we didn’t equally deserve to be born to a poor peasant family in Outer Mongolia in the Middle Ages?
The Gemara cryptically teaches that everyone needs a dose of arrogant confidence to offset humility, and the proper amount is an eighth of an eighth – leaving the denominating unit unspecified. The Gemara doesn’t suggest that the unit is one sixty-fourth, and the Vilna Gaon notes that Yakov’s admission is the eighth verse in the eighth Parsha and should serve as the model of how to handle our blessings confidently.
R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that the Torah uses sevens for complete natural cycles, and the number eight restarts the cycle, an octave higher. For example, circumcision is performed on the day after one seven day cycle; and the Yovel is the year after seven full Shmita cycles.
The notion of eighths concerning how to handle our blessings speaks to the idea that we are all blessed – we should be grateful for what we have and dedicate those talents, tools, and resources to make an impact. That’s one eighth.
But it’s quite possible to get carried away. Sure, I’m fortunate to have received so many blessings, but why me, of all people? It’s not hard to think there’s an element of justice involved, that maybe you really do deserve it on some level. That’s the second eighth.
In mysticism, this paradox is called the bread of shame – נהמא דכיסופא. If our souls just stayed in Heaven, basking in the ethereal light, it would be a degrading handout. Our souls go into bodies so we can earn our way back, and it’s no longer a handout. But the thing is, the notion of earning anything at all is an elaborate illusion – the system itself is a gift, the biggest gift of all.
When we realize how fortunate we are, we feel like Yakov, humbled by God’s generosity. Sure, there’s plenty that could be better, and we have very hungry ambitions for much more. But Yakov was self-aware enough to acknowledge those blessings, long before he had stability or security. He could see his blessings for the good fortune they were even while on the run, yet again, escaping Lavan’s clutches while hoping to avoid getting slaughtered by his brother Esau and his forces. We can want lots more but recognize the blessings that have gotten us where we are.
Crucially, we should take note of where this self-reflection propelled Yakov.
Yakov knew he was blessed, and he knew he hadn’t earned those blessings. The very first thing Yakov did after escaping Esau was to buy land and install an altar to thank God.
It’s not enough to know that we’re blessed. We have to recognize that the fact we have any gifts is the greatest gift of all, and taking Yakov’s example, all we can do is pay it forward and make sure we use our blessings for the best purposes we can find.