Mayanot Parshat Vayishlach: The Need to Make the Effort
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Vayishlach(Genesis 32:4-36:43)

The Need to Make the Effort

This week's Torah portion tells the story of the confrontation between Jacob and Esau. Jacob's preparation for this meeting is described in great detail. Jacob began by testing Esau's mood; he sent messengers to Esau to apprise him of his imminent return to Israel. The messengers returned with the alarming report that upon hearing the news, Esau immediately set out to meet him with a military force of four hundred men. Jacob became very alarmed by the news and began pleading with God:

"Rescue me, I pray from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him that he will come and strike me down, mother and children alike." (Genesis 32:12)

 

* * *

 

WHAT WAS WRONG WITH THE PROMISES HE ALREADY HAD

Jacob's preparations, his fear of Esau and his need to turn to God for reassurance are all somewhat perplexing; he was already armed with two promises of protection made to him by God.

The first was given to him at the very beginning of his travels before he left Israel bound for Laban's house in Padan Arom:

"Behold I am with you; I will guard you wherever you go, and I will return you to this soil; for I will not forsake you until I will have done what I have spoken about you." (Genesis 28:15)

We might have been able to account for Jacob's need for reassurance by the fact that this promise was made to him over twenty years ago and was therefore somewhat dated. But God's second promise of protection was hot off the presses; it was given to him along with the instruction to leave Laban's house and return home. Indeed, its entire purpose seems to have been to reassure him concerning his safety on the journey home:

"And God said to Jacob, 'Return to the land of your fathers and to your native land, and I will be with you.'" (Genesis 31:3)

In the face of such promises, what was there to prepare for or to be afraid of? It is quite clear that Jacob himself regarded the promises as applicable for he invokes both of them in the context of his prayer:

"And You had said, 'I will surely do good with you and I will make your offspring like the sands of the sea which are too numerous to count.'" (Genesis 32:13)

If Jacob felt the promises did not apply why invoke them, and if he thought they did apply why was he afraid?

 

* * *

 

DIVINE PROMISES CAN BE CANCELED

The Sages of the Talmud (Berochot, 4a) offer a solution to this dilemma that raises a host of new issues. They suggest that sometimes the commission of inadvertent sins can intervene to cancel Divine promises. A Divine promise should not be regarded as an airtight guarantee but is to be interpreted as a statement of policy regarding God's intentions whose implementation is conditional on the recipient of the promise remaining deserving. Jacob was afraid of having inadvertently committed some sin that might have had the effect of emptying God's promises of their protective value.

Nachmanides points out that this answer seems difficult to accept especially with regard to the second promise that had been made such a short time ago. His tentative suggestion: Jacob may have been afraid that God disapproved of the pact he made with Laban at the end of Vayetzei (Genesis 31), as Laban was an evildoer. Even though Jacob made this pact in good faith, he was afraid that God might regard it as a sin and withdraw his protection as a consequence of its commission.

But how can we possibly relate to such a suggestion? Jacob certainly knew that he did not intend to violate God's will by signing the pact with Laban; he did what he considered necessary at the time, according to his best understanding of the world and his duties towards others as a God-fearing person. How could he think that his standing in God's eyes could have changed so drastically as a result, to the extent that he could no longer depend on God's protection? Is there any way to relate to such an unforgiving attitude? How can anyone ever rely on God for protection?

 

* * *

 

HISHTADLUT OR EFFORT

To properly comprehend this, we must explore a concept called hishtadlut, or effort. The background to the problem is presented by the following passage of Talmud:

A person's disposable income is determined for him on Rosh Hashana until the following Rosh Hashana excluding what he spends to honor the Shabbat and the Holidays and excluding the sum he expends on tuition to educate his children in Torah.(Betzah, 16a)

The statement positively begs for the obvious question. If our income is predetermined regardless of what we do to earn it, why must we go to work altogether? Why not immerse ourselves in Torah study and Divine service and just wait for this income to arrive?

There is more than one way to tackle this question, but let us present a theory based on the thoughts of the Ramchal in Derech Hashem (Pt. 2, Ch.3), and of the Gaon of Vilna in Even Shleima (Ch. 1). The first step in the argument: we were all sent to the world chiefly to perfect our characters. In certain matters we are all identical, and therefore we were all given the same commandments to follow, but in other ways we are quite different. Divine Providence arranges the circumstances of our individual lives so as to insure that each of us is confronted by the situations we require to perfect our own particular character. The things that necessity compels us to do are the very things that we actually need to do anyway in order to work on our characters.

 

* * *

 

WORKING TOWARDS PERFECTION

Thus if I have a job where my boss is a difficult person who constantly puts me down, and I often need to swallow my pride and hold on to my temper in order to keep my job, the correct way to relate to my need to work from the point of view of Divine Providence is to assume that the character traits I was sent to the world to perfect are pride and patience, and doing my job necessitates the expenditure of constant effort in perfecting these traits.

By rising to the challenge presented by my job, I am fulfilling my spiritual task and God pays me for my work on my character by supplying me with disposable income. My income comes from God, not my boss, and I need to work at my job in order to obtain it, because it is really God's job that I am working at. No matter how hard I work, I will never exceed the income written for me on Rosh Hashana, but I must work at my Divinely assigned task in order to attain what was prescribed. My food does not come from my work; rather it is my need to obtain food that guarantees that I will do the work that is necessary to complete myself spiritually.

But even after having said this it still remains true that God never intended to design a world in which man would have to waste his time on the mundane tasks that we pursue in our efforts to make a living; the world was designed to support man without effort, so that he could immerse himself entirely in spiritual pursuits. To demonstrate the fact that such a life is a practical possibility right here on earth we are offered the example of the Exodus generation who subsisted entirely on manna, whose clothes never shredded, and who lived in the climate controlled environment of the Clouds of Glory for forty years, spending their days in the study of God's Torah at the feet of Moses.

 

* * *

 

IT IS MAN WHO CHOSE TO INHABIT THE WORLD OF WORK

It is only in today's world, a world that mankind chose to inhabit all on his own that man must work for a living as the Talmud points out:

R' Shimon ben Elazar says: "Have you ever seen a wild animal or a bird that has a trade? Yet they sustain themselves without travail although they were only created to serve me, whereas I was created to serve my Master. Does it not follow that I should be able to sustain myself without difficulty? However, I have corrupted my deeds and thereby forfeited my sustenance." (Kiddushin, 82a)

But doesn't this contradict the idea that the work we do is necessary to perfect our character? The answer; this need to perfect our characters was the consequence of Adam's sin.

When Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he mixed evil into his character and introduced the evil force into the universe. "Knowledge" in Hebrew is da'at, a word that also means "to connect." To "know" evil is "to connect" with it. At creation, God connected Adam only to what was good. There was no need to labor to perfect his character. He commanded him to avoid any connection with evil by avoiding contact with the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Man's connection to Evil was his own doing, the result of his decision to taste Evil's flavor by ingesting the fruit that grew from its tree. The world was designed to sustain man; if there is evil in man it must also be sustained; there must necessarily be evil in the world as well.

It is following his sin that God tells Adam:

"Accursed is the ground because of you. Through suffering shall you eat of it all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread until you return to the ground from which you were taken: for you are dust and to dust shall you return." (Genesis 3:17)

It was the confusion of good and evil that gave birth to the need for hishtadlus or the expenditure of toil and effort to earn one's food. Now that everything is all mixed up, man must constantly labor at separating the good from the evil; in his own character, in the processing of his food, in all the phenomena of the natural world. The need to labor at separation is the direct consequence of the "corruption of man's deeds that caused him to forfeit his sustenance" (paraphrasing the words of the Talmudic passage quoted above).

 

* * *

 

UNRAVELING THE CONFUSION

But there is more. Because the necessity for this sort of labor was self-imposed, the need to engage in it became mandatory to man's survival and is not subject to free choice. Contrast the need to work for a living with the need to observe the commandments. The tasks of Torah observance were imposed by God but He left them open to free choice. If man chooses the path of non-observance, his transgressions will not directly affect his ability to survive. The consequences of Torah observance are spiritual reward and punishment, not physical life and death.

But the creation of the need to work for a living was man's doing not God's. Because he is the one who injected the evil into his own character, he was not given a choice about working on the repairs. God's punishments are always therapeutic; suffering the punishment inevitably cures the flaw that brought about its imposition.

Jacob was the Patriach who introduced the Jewish people to their particular brand of hishtadlus. Unlike Abraham and Isaac, who came by their wealth miraculously and without effort, Jacob labored for twenty years tending Laban's sheep to earn his wealth. Laban was a difficult boss, who attempted to cheat him out of his wages at every turn. His work experience under Laban drove the knowledge of the direct correlation between wealth and Divine assistance deep into Jacob's soul. It was obvious that it was not Jacob's labor that produced his wealth, but God's help. He had to put in the labor to obtain the help. Jacob was the Patriarch who established this correlation as a pattern for all future Jewish hishtadlut. We must never fall under the illusion that our own efforts are the cause of our prosperity. It is for God that we labor, not for our bread.

 

* * *

 

SEPARATING THE GOOD FROM THE BAD

Jacob spent his entire life in the labor of separating himself from the association with evil. He had to sever himself from his brother Esau. He had to separate his wives from their father Laban. He was forced to contend with the terrible rivalry among his children and guide each one into finding his own place.

At his meeting with Pharaoh, he sums up his life:

"The days of the years of my sojourns have been a hundred and thirty years. Few and bad have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not reached the life spans of my forefathers in the days of their sojourns." (Genesis 47:9)

We are finally ready to confront the problem of Jacob's attitude to God's promises. Being a Patriarch, Jacob understood his mission in life. It was his role to set the pattern for Jewish hishtadlus through the ages and he regarded everything that happened to him from the perspective of this duty.

Relying on God's promises without putting in any effort has a serious downside. If one has not yet put in the work on one's character to merit the things that the promises deliver, it does not necessarily pay to collect on the Divine promises at all. A Divine promise absolves one from the anxiety of having to struggle to obtain the results that it guarantees. But since the purpose of all struggle is to remedy the confusion of good and evil within oneself and the world, and since this confusion must inevitably be remedied, any delay in putting in the effort to correct it only puts off the day of reckoning.

Unless he already fully merited it, if Jacob had relied on God's promises and accepted an easy pass in his present confrontation with Esau, he would merely have pushed off the need to struggle with Esau to a future date, to some future generation. On the other hand, if he made the effort to stand up to Esau now, he would lessen the need for such effort in future generations, as well as setting a precedent for them to follow. Jacob was saying in effect, "Of course I know that I can rely on Your promises to me. But I am afraid that I am not deserving of the automatic safety they guarantee. If I still need to struggle with the evil and confusion in my own soul that Esau represents in the outside world, I would rather go through the hishtadlut of confrontation him now."

 

* * *

 

A FATEFUL CHOICE

The course of choosing to struggle against Esau instead of relying on God's protection has proven to be a very important precedent. Israel's major struggle through the ages has been against Esau and all that he represents. We have just passed the millennium; the calendar that initiated it also initiated our present historic era. Our present exile began roughly 2,000 years ago, with the destruction of the Second Temple. It is known as the "Edom Diaspora"; it is Esau's line of descent that is identified as Edom/Rome. (See Genesis 25:30.) Esau's grandchildren founded Rome, and it was the Roman Empire that destroyed the second Temple and drove Israel into exile. It was through the structure of the Roman Empire that Christianity spread through the western world. Christianity was the spiritual force behind the virulent anti-Semitism that the Jewish people have contended with ever since.

The need for the descendants of Jacob - namely Israel - to contend with the descendants of Esau arises from the fact that Jacob obtained Esau's blessing through deception. Until it is finally established that Israel deserved that blessing because it is morally superior in every way to Esau and everything he represents, the act of appropriating the blessings and thus usurping Esau's rightful place cannot be seen as totally appropriate and correct. Esau has what appears to be a legitimate claim against the very foundation of the Jewish people. Indeed, the claim of Christianity through the ages has been that they have replaced Israel as God's chosen.

The rabbis always consulted this Torah portion before they engaged in dealings with the gentiles. (See Bereishis Raba, 78:18.) They considered Jacob the best teacher about the most effective method to conduct the hishtadlus against Esau.

 

* * *

 

JACOB'S METHOD

The Sages teach us that Jacob did three things to prepare for the confrontation with his brother:

 

  • He sent Esau a very lavish bribe.
  • He prayed to God for assistance.
  • He prepared himself to wage war as a last resort.

 

During the actual meeting, Jacob bowed to Esau, and referred to him as "my lord" no less then seven times.

We Jews have employed the same sort of hishtadlut practiced by our Patriarch Jacob to deal with Esau ever since. These acts follow the pattern of all hishtadlut; they also affect the collective Jewish character in definite ways.

 

* * *

 

STICKING TO THE PATTERN

Over the millennia, we have bribed Esau lavishly. Jewish brains and Jewish wealth have contributed enormously to the building of the gentile world. The need to offer such bribes contains a powerful spiritual message. The justification for usurping Esau's blessing must always be that Jacob is not interested in the material world for its own sake at all, and only took the blessings to ensure that he and his descendants would always have the means to devote themselves to the service of God. Israel must always be ready and willing to give up any benefits the non-Jews look upon as 'extras' without complaint.

Jacob bowed to Esau seven times, signifying his willingness to submit to Esau's rule till the end of days. The spiritual message to Jews through the ages; we, who are Jacob's descendants cannot expect honor in this world, which was created in seven days, and according to Jewish tradition, will endure in its present form for seven thousand years. We must always willingly accept being relegated to second-class status by people who are our cultural and moral inferiors. You can readily observe how deeply this message was absorbed. The instinctive reaction to attack by non-Jews among the most assimilated members of the Jewish people is invariably to blame ourselves for our troubles rather than Esau or his cohorts.

Jacob's prepared for war by splitting his household into two camps. We have survived our two thousand years of exile by never putting our eggs into one basket and locating entirely in any one place. Somehow, there was always a friendly prince or king somewhere, who was willing to give Jews refuge even as others were busy persecuting them. Since Jews were spread out everywhere, there were always some survivors, and fleeing Jews always found some of their brethren well enough established to assist them wherever they ran. The spiritual message that there is no security in physical power cannot have been more forcefully broadcast.

Finally, there was Jacob's prayer. Jacob told God that while he could always demand delivery of God's promises, nevertheless he realized that:

"I am too small for all the kindness and all the truth that you have done your servant." (Genesis 32:11)

Therefore, Jacob chose the route of hishtadlus; instead of taking a free pass he asked God to bless his efforts and allow him to survive.

Jacob's fear was not the fear of Esau. It was a fear of the terrible hishtadlus necessary to overcome Esau. The history of the Jewish people for the past two thousand years is a history of this struggle against Esau, and it reads like a horror story. But it is also a magnificent story that demonstrates the majestic power of Jewish faith. The Jewish people's faith in their Messianic destiny has never wavered.

Jewish fear is very unique. It is never fear of the outcome - the outcome will surely be good. It is a fear of not being strong enough to bear the necessary hishtadlus to bring it about. We know that all of God's promises will inevitably be fulfilled. But we also know that in the end we will have to become worthy of collecting on them. Since we know how small we really are, we are terrified at the prospect of the peaks we will have to climb to merit these promises.

Published: November 16, 2002

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Visitor Comments: 3

(3) Anonymous, December 14, 2005 12:00 AM

This essay is so beautiful and wise, I hesitate to express my one tiny objection. The history of the past two thousand years has proved the cultural and moral superiority of a Torah-based life, but I'd be careful of considering ALL "non-Jews" the "cultural and moral inferiors" of ALL Jews. In Israel, there are Jews serving prison sentences, and Gentiles honored among the righteous. I suggest that it's the cultural and moral superiority of a Torah-based life we need to trust in, and not anyone's automatic birthright of being born a Jew. By suggesting this, I'm agreeing completely with the Rabbi's thesis that we can't count on promises unless we make the effort to deserve them.

(2) Anonymous, December 13, 2005 12:00 AM

Dear Rabbi:
How deep is your essay, and how clear now everything is to me.
Thank you

(1) Anonymous, November 18, 2002 12:00 AM

impacts so much

"We must always willingly accept being relegated to second-class status by people who are our cultural and moral inferiors."

"Jewish fear is very unique. It is never fear of the outcome - the outcome will surely be good. It is a fear of not being strong enough..."

These words gives one the strength to accept God's judgment.. To live out the life God has assigned to you to the best of your ability, with detached attachment, but always with all the happiness one can muster.

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