In this week’s Torah reading, Yaakov (Jacob) prepared to meet his brother Eisav (Esau). Yaakov was returning to his homeland, where Eisav lived, after being away for many years. Because Eisav wanted to kill Yaakov, Yaakov took precautions as he entered the land. He sent delegations with many presents in attempt to appease Eisav. But these efforts proved to be futile. Eisav got ready with an army of four hundred men to attack Yaakov. In the end, Yaakov was miraculously spared from harm.
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 75:3) relates a fascinating insight regarding this episode: The whole encounter with Eisav could have been easily avoided. The Midrash says that Yaakov was considered to have gotten involved in a fight which did not pertain to him. The Midrash explains this point with an allegory as follows: There was a bandit who fell asleep on the side of the highway. A man was passing by and woke him up, warning him that there was a bandit in the area. Upon waking up, the bandit starting hitting the man and said, “I am the bandit who was sleeping, and you aroused him!” So too, God said to Yaakov, “Eisav was going on his own way, and you aroused him against you by sending a delegation to him.”
That Which I Feared Came Upon Me
The question is, why is this considered a fight which is not his own? Eisav wasn’t out to attack anyone else, and Yaakov knew that Eisav hated him and had plans to kill him. Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein (Ohr Yechezkel, Vol.3 p. 128) derives from here a tremendous lesson in bitachon (reliance on God). Currently, Eisav was subdued and not actively engaging Yaakov in a fight. Had Yaakov not sent him the messengers, God would have had Eisav continue to ignore Yaakov. Initially, God would have seen to it that Eisav would not engage Yaakov in conflict. It was only because Yaakov took the initiative to reach out to Eisav that he was put in danger in the first place. Because Yaakov took measures to protect himself from potential peril without the actual presence of a threat, the result was that he indeed experienced a dangerous situation and needed to protect himself.
Rabbi Levenstein explains that, in Yaakov’s situation, according to his spiritual level, it was an unnecessary precaution. Taking unnecessary precautions is an expression of a lack in bitachon. Doing an act of caution which expresses a lack in bitachon can result, as a consequence, in bringing on the danger which one is attempting to avoid. God acts with one according to the way he behaves. When one neglects to rely on God properly, and takes unwarranted precautions for things he should not fear, God gives him a valid reason for the fear.
Along these lines, the Maharal (Bava Metzia 33a) interprets the verse in Iyov (Job) (3:25) which says, “That which I feared came upon me.” Says the Maharal, the verse is saying that the act of fear draws upon a person that which he fears.
Had I Been There, The Artillery Would Not Have Hit
During the War of Independence of the State of Israel, the Brisker Rav was sitting in his apartment in Jerusalem, studying Torah. Artillery shells were flying, and his children pressured him to leave the apartment and go to a lower level, which was considered safer. The Brisker Rav did not consider this to be a necessary precaution, but due to his family’s persistence, he relented to their request.
When the attack subsided, the family returned upstairs, and found that their apartment had been damaged by the artillery, right where the Brisker Rav was sitting. People commented on how it was a good thing that the Brisker Rav decided to relocate downstairs. But the Brisker Rav saw things differently. He maintained that the opposite was true. Since it was not decreed in Heaven that he be hurt, he would not have been hit had he stayed in his apartment. God would have prevented any artillery from inflicting any harm upon him. On the contrary, because he had left and exercised unnecessary precaution, he suffered the loss of having to now repair the apartment.
Reliance on God – The Best Precaution
Understandably, we must take precautions in life. God expects of us to use our judgment to keep ourselves safe, and it is a sin to be negligent. But at the same time, we must be careful not to be too careful. Sometimes we have the urge to feel in control and take excessive measures to enhance our security. Not only will it not help, but it may be counterproductive.
Being extra careful to avoid unreasonable risks demonstrates a lack of bitachon, and gives the potential danger a stronger chance to materialize. Who knows how many problems one brings upon himself solely because he fears them? The best way to combat fear and protect ourselves is to rely on God to take care of us and by making sure we don’t go overboard in taking unnecessary precautions.
By Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber firstname.lastname@example.org