The Shmuz on the Parsha: Relying on Hashem

Maybe Jacob was just scared.

Rabbi BenZion Shafier

Judaism Rabbi Shafier
Rabbi Shafier

“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.” — Bereishis 32:7

Esau comes to kill Jacob

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 posuk (verse) tells us that Jacob feared greatly.

In Talmud Tractate Brachos 4a, Rebbe Jacob Bar Idi states there is a contradiction between this posuk and an earlier one.

When Jacob was leaving his father’s house, Hashem promised him that he would be protected. If so, how is it possible that Jacob was now afraid?

Rebbe Jacob bar Idi answers that Jacob was afraid that Hashem’s promise to guard him might have been based on the assumption that Jacob would remain on the level he was on. 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.

Hashem’s promise to guard him was based on his remaining on the madreigah, level, that was then, and he was afraid that he had lost that level of purity. Therefore, he was now afraid of Esau.

This Gemara 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, the Avos were, they were made out of the same flesh and blood that we are, had the same physical makeup that we do, and facedall 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 Hashem 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. This man didn’t come alone; he brought with him an army to aid in what was his clear intention — murder. So why does Rebbe Jacob bar Idi 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.

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

The answer to this question seems to be that there is a key distinction between Jacob and the average person. Jacob walked with Hashem. When he got up in the morning, he said, “Good morning, Hashem.” When he went to sleep at night, he said, “Good night, Hashem” because his Creator was directly in front of him. When he went about his daily activities, Hashem was with him all day long. Hashem was there as he walked, as he ate, and as he greeted people. Throughout his day, Hashem was present and accounted for.

One of the reasons that we have such difficulties in trusting in Hashem is that Hashem isn’t “here.” Perhaps Hashem 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?

But Jacob was never alone. His entire existence was focused on being close to Hashem. Hashem was present with him every moment of his day. When he went to the well to find a wife, Hashem was right there arranging for Rachel to come with the sheep. When he went to the house of Laban, Hashem 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 Hashem.

If Jacob didn’t have a reason to think that Hashem’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 Rebbe Jacob Bar Idi asked, “How is it possible that Jacob was afraid?” His answer is that Jacob was afraid that the promise no longer applied. Maybe Hashem no longer guaranteed to protect him. Otherwise, it would have been impossible for Jacob to have feared danger.

Growing in reliance upon Hashem, bitachon. means seeing Hashem — right here This concept that Hashem is present and right here is the basis of all bitachon. If a person doesn’t know that Hashem is present in his life, any discussion of relying on Hashem is foolish.

How can I rely on Hashem when He isn’t even here? What good is trusting in Hashem if Hashem isn’t on the scene, right here to watch over me? Bitachon, by definition, means knowing that Hashem 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, ruchniyus. However, it is also one of the easiest things to do – to simply remember that Hashem 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 cognition has a dramatic effect on my entire relationship to Hashem, on all of my serving Hashem, Avodas Hashem, and ultimately on my entire life.