One of the most famous sibling rivalries in the Torah is that of Yaakov (Jacob) and Eisav (Esau). Eisav and his army have finally caught up with Yaakov and fear is in the midst.
…We came to your brother, to Esau, and he is heading toward you with four hundred men. And Jacob became very frightened and it distressed him. (32:8-9)
How did Jacob respond to this news? The Midrash says that he did three things to prepare for the confrontation. He prayed, sent gifts (i.e. bribery), and he prepared his people for war. The commentary of Ramban (1194-1270) mentions that Jacob’s methodology has been adopted by Jewish leadership throughout the generations. When anti-Semitic enactments are decreed on the Jews, they (1) pray and (2) attempt to solve things through diplomacy (including payoffs, if a pogrom or other act of violence can be avoided) but just in case these first two are not effective, we need to be prepared to fight. One can find many precedents in Jewish history for this behavior but there is something puzzling about Yaakov setting the precedent. Why did he need to pray; didn’t G-d already promise him that He would be with him?
Behold, I am with you and will guard you wherever you go. (28:15)
The Talmud asks this question and answers that Yaakov was afraid that G-d’s promise might have been rescinded due to his own inadequacy or deficiency. This answer is difficult to understand because when G-d gives a promise without stipulations, it is unconditional. Did Yaakov, the most exalted of the Patriarchs, suddenly lose his trust in G-d and think that He would not keep His promise?
What is even more baffling is his seemingly absurd desire to pray. Imagine if we would have been there, this is how the conversation might have gone.
We: “Yaakov, your angry brother and his army are coming, where are you going?” Yaakov: “I am going to shule to pray?” We: “What are you going to ask for?” Yaakov: “That G-d protect me.” We: “Didn’t G-d already promise you that He would? Your prayer has already been answered; why are you praying? Have you suddenly lost confidence in G-d?”
In summary, Yaakov’s desire to pray seems unnecessary and even shows a lack of trust in G-d’s promise. How can we make sense of it?
Malbim is a 19th century commentary that focuses on precise textual reading. He observes that the text says And Yaakov became very frightened and it distressed him. It seems that Yaakov had two reactions; he was frightened AND he was distressed. As such, Malbim suggests that the reason Yaakov was distressed was because he was afraid. In spite of the Almighty’s promise that He would guard him, he was still afraid and therefore “it distressed him.” When G-d promised that he would protect him, he had trusted in G-d but now he was afraid. The fact that he had succumbed to fear, even though the Almighty was on his side, pained him. He had lacked the confidence in G-d that his parents (Isaac and Rebecca) and grandparents (Abraham and Sara) had. His prayer was meant to restore that confidence.
In Chassidic thought this concept is taken one step further. Sometimes a person runs away from a situation that G-d had wanted for his or her benefit and therefore loses an opportunity. In this case, the meeting between Esav and Yaakov was for Esav to confront his past and recognize that Yaakov was the rightful bearer of the birthright. There would have been conflict but Yaakov was in no danger. However, he focused on his fear of the encounter rather than realizing that this was his destiny.
How does this relate to us? We-all human beings -live our lives having to confront two concepts; belief and trust. A person might believe in a friend but not trust him or her with some crucial matter. The same is true with G-d. One can pray but ultimately not trust G-d. G-d, for some, is like a good luck charm. Whether it is a job, troubled relationship or some other area of life that is causing us physical or emotional pain, we look for any means other than G-d. Although we have an obligation to do whatever is in our ability to solve our problem, we place our trust in our efforts but not in G-d.
The 11th century Jewish classic Duties of the Heart has an entire section based on trust. He says, “If you do not trust G-d, you will inevitable trust someone or something else.” The implication is that trust is natural to humans. However, we often abuse that inclination and place our trust in “gods” (including ourselves). Who or what are these gods that have our trust? “I went to college and graduate school but can’t find a job” said in incredulous person who placed total trust in the system (“If I get the right credentials, things will fall into place.”) “I was a loyal employee of the company and brought them much revenue but now due to a restructure in the company, I no longer have a job.” This person placed her trust in the company. How many times have we heard, when someone is fed up with some aspect of life for which he or she has given much commitment, “I didn’t sign up for this.” Translation: “This was not in the plan in which I trusted.”
Why are people willing to put their trust in virtually everything but not G-d? This Dvar Torah will not explore this question but the next time you are frustrated with one or more aspects of your life, ask yourself “did G-d enter into this equation? After studying for the GRE’s, did I ask for his help in it. Even Olympic athletes, arguable the most trained professionals in the world, can’t depend on themselves, their training and trainers. Isn’t the gold medal winner the one who is not necessarily the best athlete but the one who also woke up that morning feeling healthy, did not have any mishaps on the way, did not hear some tragic or heart breaking news that would cause him or her to focus on the event? There are so many factors that go into winning-in life and relationships-that are beyond our control.
People and institutions can let us down; is it logical to place our full trust in them? I recently spoke with someone who was experiencing much pain from insensitive actions taken by an older child. She was a great Mom and did not deserve this hurt (or “I didn’t sign up for this.”) When she admitted having no hope or direction (intervention and therapy hadn’t helped) for how to change things, I suggested that she surrender and turn to G-d and share her pain with Him. Humans can’t necessarily change people, but G-d can. Let go and let G-d; you don’t have to solve this yourself. She became emotional and said that these words felt so liberating; she could not imagine how good she would feel after actually mediated and prayed and allowed G-d to be in the equation.
What or whom do you actually trust? The answer will help you achieve something never taught about in formal education-how to achieve peace of mind.
(Sources: Brachos 4a; Studies in the Weekly Parsha Yehuda Nachshoni pp.193-195; The Duties of the Heart translated by Yaakov Feldman p.174 note 4.)