Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Vayishlah

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:

Rabbi Jacob bar Idi asks: It is written, "Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go," but it also says, "Jacob was greatly frightened"!? [The answer:] He [Jacob] said: Lest my sins cause [the promise not to hold]. (Berakhot 4a)

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:

A person should never put himself in a position of danger and trust that a miracle will be wrought for him, lest a miracle not be done for him... Rabbi Hanin said: What verse substantiates this? "I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant" (Gen. 32:11). (Shabbat 32a)

This lesson can also be learned from Samuel's question when he was sent to anoint David: "How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me" (I Sam. 16:2). Even though Samuel was a prophet of the Lord and had been sent by Him on this mission, he did not rely on a miracle but sought advice how to protect himself from Saul. G-d's answer suggested that he use deception: "Take a heifer with you, and say, 'I have come to sacrifice to the Lord'" (ibid.). On the basis of this episode, in several places in the Talmud the Sages curtail the general rule that "people sent to perform a mitzvah do not come to harm." We see from the words of the Sages that this general rule is extremely problematic, and not everyone accepts it as valid for every situation. Clearly if Samuel, who was explicitly sent on his mission by G-d, did not trust in this rule, then all the more so for more those who are not so directly sent by divine order.

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 of life.

Prepared for Internet Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.