Parshas Vayishlach 5773

Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43)

People Smarts Part 2

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G-d is Here

And Jacob feared greatly, and it caused him pain, and he split the nation that was with him, the sheep, cattle, and camels into two camps.” – Genesis 32:7

Esau Comes to Kill Jacob

Maybe Yaakov was just plain scared?

The word came to Jacob that his brother Esau was coming to greet him, accompanied by 400 men armed to the teeth. It was obvious to all that Esau intended to kill Jacob. The Torah verse tells us that Jacob feared greatly.

But the Talmud states there is a contradiction between this verse and an earlier one. When Jacob was leaving his father’s house, G-d promised him that he would be protected. So how is it possible that Jacob was now afraid?

The Talmud answers that Jacob was afraid that G-d’s promise to guard him might have been based on the assumption that he would remain on the same spiritual level. Jacob feared that he might have sinned and was no longer the same man he once was, so the promise no longer applied. Therefore, there is no contradiction. Jacob was afraid that he had lost his level of purity, and therefore, he was now afraid of Esau.

This becomes difficult to understand when we take into account that after all is said and done, Jacob was still a human. No matter how great the patriarchs were, they were made out of the same flesh and blood that we are, had the same physical makeup that we do, and faced all the challenges of being a human being.

This means that Jacob had that most difficult challenge of life: integrating his intellectual understandings into practice, of believing and not believing. Of course, he knew that G-d promised to protect him, but here he was faced with a brother whose nature he knew quite well: a powerful, driven man who had a burning desire to settle an old grudge. And this man didn’t come alone; he’d brought with him an army to aid in what was his clear intention – murder. So why does the Talmud assume that it was impossible for Jacob to be afraid? Maybe Jacob was just scared – not because of any sin that changed his level, but because of the danger that he faced. Perhaps he was afraid of Esau, afraid of being out there alone, and afraid of dying.

G-d Made that Promise 34 Years Ago

What makes this explanation even more plausible is that G-d’s promise to Jacob was made over 34 years before Esau came to greet him. An awful lot of time had passed since Jacob left his parents’ home. Maybe the trust in G-d’s promise had faded over the time. Maybe Jacob was ever so slightly affected by the ways of the world. Why assume that there must be some answer as to why Jacob was afraid? The explanation might be quite straightforward: Jacob hadn’t heard G-d’s promise in many, many years, and he was simply afraid. Maybe Jacob was much like us.

Jacob Walked with G-d

The answer to this question seems to be that there is a key distinction between Jacob and the average person. Jacob walked with G-d.

When he got up in the morning, he said, “Good morning, G-d.” When he went to sleep at night, he said, “Good night, G-d” because his Creator was directly in front of him. When he went about his daily activities, G-d was with him all day long. G-d was there as he walked, as he ate, and as he greeted people. Throughout his day, G-d was present and accounted for.

One of the reasons that we have such difficulties in trusting in G-d is that G-d isn’t “here.” Perhaps G-d is some thirteen billion light years away, up in the heavens. But when I am walking on a cold dark street late at night, and a car stops, and three tough-looking guys step out and approach me, I am alone. It is the three of them and me. So, naturally, I am afraid. Who wouldn’t be?

Jacob Was Never Alone

But Jacob was never alone. His entire existence was focused on being close to G-d. G-d was present with him every moment of his day. When he went to the well to find a wife, G-d was right there arranging for Rachel to come along with the sheep. When he went to the house of Laban, G-d was right there protecting him from the scheming of a trickster. And now that he was preparing to meet his brother in what was likely to be mortal combat, he was not going out alone. He walked with G-d.

If Jacob didn’t have a reason to think that G-d’s promise no longer applied, it would have been impossible for him to have feared being injured. It would be the equivalent of you or me being afraid of some high school punks while being escorted by the entire US Marine Corps. That is why the Talmud asked, “How is it possible that Jacob was afraid?” Its answer is that Jacob was afraid that the promise no longer applied. Maybe G-d no longer guaranteed to protect him. Otherwise, it would have been impossible for Jacob to have feared danger.

Trusting in G-d Means Seeing G-d – Right Here

The concept that G-d is present and right here is the basis of all faith. If a person doesn’t know that G-d is present in his life, any discussion of relying on G-d is foolish. How can I rely on G-d when He isn’t even here? What good is trusting in G-d if G-d isn’t on the scene, right here to watch over me? Trust, by definition, means knowing that G-d is here, supervising me and involved in my life.

While this may seem self-evident, in practice it is highly elusive. To truly know it requires much work, and to a large extent, this is the measure of a person’s spirituality. However, it is also one of the simplest things to do – just remember that G-d is here. Right here. As I speak, as I think, as I read. Not some millions of miles away up there in the sky, but right here. This single thought has a dramatic effect on my entire relationship to G-d, and ultimately on my entire life.


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