Jacob has now left his father-in-law’s house and is on his way to Beersheba to the house of his father. He sends a delegation to his brother, Esau, seemingly trying to appease him, with the Esau’s promise to commit fratricide still echoing in the back of Jacob’s head. Jacob’s act of appeasement and his gesture of subservience is a point of contention among the commentators. While some of the famous commentaries justify his conduct[i], many scholars condemn Jacob’s lack of faith and claim that the delegation of messengers was actually detrimental to his safety. [ii]
The messengers return with terrifying news: Esau is already on his way and he has four hundred men with him. Jacob is terrified. Many commentaries are perplexed by this fear – how could a man of such great faith be afraid of death if he was guaranteed protection by God? God had promised that He would protect Jacob wherever he went.[iii] What was he scared of?
The Talmudic Sages were aware of this difficulty and proposed in several places that the fear was based on the premise that God’s promise was conditional, and that it would only come true if Jacob deserved it. Consequently, Jacob was afraid that he might have sinned and lost his right to divine protection.[iv] The Abravanel offers a psychological explanation: the real confidence in God’s promise was manifested in Jacob overcoming that very fear that he expressed. Man is heir to natural apprehensions regardless of his level of confidence, and he who is truly brave and confident is able to overcome those innate fears.
Jacob devises a three-pronged plan to defend himself from Esau: He prepares militarily, he prays for divine help, and he sends Esau gifts of appeasement.[v] At first glance, Jacob’s actions are puzzling. He resorts to money and force, on one hand; he appeals for Divine help, on the other. What is the significance of this combination of initiative and effort teamed up with trust in God?
The Arama, in his book Akeidat Yitzhak, offers a lengthy, yet extremely powerful explanation of Jacob’s actions. In this segment he starts by quoting the verse in Psalms and explaining its limitations:
“Behold the eye of the Lord is towards those that revere Him, to save their soul from death.”[vi] Nevertheless, human initiative is still called for, and the lack of it where necessary constitutes a sin.
This same idea is echoed by the Sages in their comments to the verse in Deuteronomy:
“For the Lord your God has blessed you in all the work of your hand.” Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob states: If he worked, he is blessed, otherwise he is not blessed.
The requirement of self-help and the obligation of a person to avoid danger based on his own efforts do not disappear even with a divine promise of protection.
We must not rely neither on merit nor Divine favor to guide us through life. We must do as much as we possibly can to succeed, and only then can we trust in God to ensure that success. It is unreasonable and dangerous to assume that we will be provided for in return for keeping God’s commandments and the precepts of the Torah – at the very least we must learn a profession and find some livelihood.
Jacob’s actions provide us with a precedent with which we can pattern our lives. While our faith in God must be strong and we must believe in the efficacy of prayer and Divine help, we can never forget to put in effort. Only when we work hard to achieve our goals will God see to it that they come true.
Jonathan Levine grew up in San Diego, California, and was part of the West Coast NCSY Regional Board in high school. He was very active in NCSY and in JSU throughout his time on the West Coast. He is currently studying in Yeshivat Hakotel in Jerusalem.
[i] See Sforno. The Midrash also tells the story of Rabbi Judah Hanasi to would act with subservience to the Roman Emperor Antoninus based on the precedent of Jacob and Esau
[ii] See the Ramban who quotes various Midrashim condemning Jacob’s behavior, and similarly condemns the Hasmonean Kings who appeased the Roman’s in the era of the Second Temple.
[iii] Genesis 28:15
[iv] Mechilta Beshalach, Tanchuma Chukkat 25, Bereishit Rabbah 76,2
[v] See Rashi to 32:9
[vi] Psalms 33:18-19