Parshat Vayishlah: Faith and deeds

Sometimes it seems to us that if a person really believes in G-d and trusts in Him, he is not supposed to take practical steps to protect himself from an enemy.

November 14, 2013 21:15
3 minute read.
Thousands attend memorial for Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

thousands of haredim at yosef memorial 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayishlah, we meet Ya’acov coming back from Haran, his residence for the last 20 years, to the Land of Canaan. He is accompanied by his extensive family, much property, and an army of servants.

As he approaches Canaan, his brother Esau awaits him, the brother who did not forget Ya’acov’s act of deceit due to which he gained the blessings of their father, Yitzhak, instead of those going to Esau, the older brother.

Esau’s promise to himself, “Let the days of mourning for my father draw near, I will then kill my brother Ya’acov” was still valid. Ya’acov progresses toward the inevitable encounter, and is deeply worried.

How does Ya’acov prepare for this charged meeting? The Torah describes three steps that Ya’acov took before meeting Esau: first, sending gifts and conciliatory presents; second, getting ready for combat; and last, an emotional plea in prayer to Gd to redeem him and save him from his brother.

Sometimes it seems to us that if a person really believes in G-d and trusts in Him, he is not supposed to take practical steps to protect himself from an enemy. Practical preparation for war could be construed as contradicting faith, as though he who takes practical steps is thus taking a stand expressing lack of belief. Ya’acov teaches us in this parsha that there no paradox between the need to defend oneself and take preparatory steps in politics or combat, and the great and strong belief in G-d who leads the world and protects those who are loyal to Him.

Why is this so? Why are practical actions necessary if, in any case, G-d protects and defends us? The answer to this lies in the understanding that practical deeds are not an expression of man’s independent ability, but the opposite. The more a man looks at complex situations he is in, the more he reaches the conclusion that his abilities are limited and his success is dependent on things over which he has no control. Therefore, there is no conflict between human effort to defend oneself or succeed in any area, and faith in a guiding hand that makes sure that all the deeds man does will indeed succeed.

A well-known folk tale illustrates this well.

The story describes a small town with a river adjacent to it that overflowed and began to flood it. All the town’s inhabitants evacuated to safer places, except for one man who stayed in his house. When evacuation teams came, he explained his decision: “I am waiting for G-d to save me.”

As the flood waters rose, the man was forced to go up to the second floor of his home. At this point, a rescue boat went by and the rowers called out to him to get on the boat and be saved. He refused. “No need,” he said, “I am waiting for G-d to save me.”

An hour later, the flood forced the man to climb up onto the roof of his house. As he stood there and the flood waters continued to rise, a rescue helicopter flew overhead and lowered a rope to him. “No, thanks,” he said, “I am waiting for G-d to save me.”

Finally, the flood waters continued to rise and not long afterwards, the man drowned.

When he got to heaven, he was angry and demanded to speak to G-d immediately. “I trusted in You,” he claimed. “And You didn’t save me?!” “What do you mean, I didn’t save you?!” Gd responded. “Who do you think sent the evacuation teams, the rescue boat, and even the helicopter?”

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.

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