Fear and prudenceVayishlach, Genesis 32:4-36:43
In just one week of Torah reading, the youthful Jacob has transformed completely. No longer a youth running away to save his life from Esau, he finds himself married, with 13 children, servants and holdings of livestock to protect.
Only a week ago, Jacob declared that he would put his faith in God to see to his safety on the road, to clothe and feed him and return him to his land. Yet, in this week’s parsha, he expresses fear when told that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men.
Freedom of youth and self-concern are replaced by the claims and responsibility for those who depend on him for their lives, their safety and well-being. This change in attitude was once put in brutally honest terms by the great British prime minister, Winston Churchill, who said, “Anyone who is not a liberal at age 19 has no heart. Anyone who is not conservative at age 39 has no brain.”
Even so, our commentators are surprised at Jacob’s turnaround. Rather than counting on God to save him from danger, Jacob seems genuinely afraid for his well being. Rather than accept that Jacob is scared of Esau, some commentators declare that he is afraid that he has sinned during his many years with Laban, his father-in-law, and that God may abandon him because of it. (Mekhilta and Tanchuma, Chukkat 25, as cited in N. Leibowitz, “Studies in Genesis”).
How does Jacob deal with his fears of Esau? Besides faith, he establishes an elaborate plan to placate his brother with successive gifts before meeting him face to face. Again, this puzzles some in our tradition who would have Jacob rely on his faith in God alone to save him.
But, as we well know, we do not ask God for miracles to confront the challenges of daily life. We ask for courage, patience, fortitude and trust in addition to faith. This stance was put forth by Isaac Arama (1420-1494), author of the Akedat Yitzchak, his thoughtful Torah commentary:
“The proper way is for one to keep both (faith and planning) in mind, to make his own plans, as far as possible, not to shun industry and self-help neither relying on merit (zechut — divine reward for merit) nor giving himself up to despair, but by doing as much as is humanly possible in furthering his interests, not trusting however, in the success of his own efforts, but in the will of God in whose hand is everything.”
In our challenging times, we must not give in to the temptation to do nothing, but rather ask God to give us health care, to find us a job, to resolve family squabbles. We pray to God for the tools of mind and wisdom of heart to meet life’s problems without ever giving up our faith that things can, not must, turn out for the good.
As Chanuka approaches, may we be blessed to tap our own God-given wisdom and strength first and then only rely on God as did the Macabbees. A blessing of light for us all for the coming Festival of lights.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)