Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Vayishlah 5760/1999
Providence and Human Discretion
Prof. Daniel Statman
Department of Philosophy
Upon leaving the land of Israel for Haran while fleeing from his brother Esau, Jacob heard explicit words of encouragement and promise from the Lord: "Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you" (Gen. 28:15). This promise was unconditional, clear, and unequivocal. Why then, when Jacob was about to return to the land with his wives and children, was he seized by terror of Esau, fearful that his brother might kill him, "mothers and children alike" (Gen. 32:12)? The Talmud notes this difficulty and says:
In other words, even though G-d's promise was not conditional on Jacob's good behavior, such a condition nevertheless was implicit. Therefore, there were grounds for Jacob's misgivings: if his merits might have diminished, making him unworthy of the Lord's protection, conceivably he might fall when he encountered his brother. Therefore Jacob took all possible measures to assist him: prayer, presents, and serious preparation for war. Jacob did not even balk at using flattery in order to appease Esau and called his brother "my lord Esau" (32:5) and himself, "your servant Jacob" (ibid.). Even this self-humiliation appeared legitimate in Jacob's eyes to assure the welfare of his own person and that of his camp.
Now if the patriarch Jacob, who received an explicit promise of protection from G-d, did not rely on this promise, "lest his sins cause...," how much more so other individuals who do not have such a promise in their pocket. Indeed, the Talmud cites the following in the name of Rabbi Yannai:
We learn from here that a person must conduct himself in this
world in accord with reality and in light of his assessment of
its dangers and uncertainties, and not assume miraculous intervention
by G-d. A person never knows if he merits a miracle and must
also fear lest his sins come into play. The concept of miracles
and the idea of Divine intervention in general do not override
the use of human discretion in steering our way through the perils
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