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Faithful Cautious Optimism

This week we read of the epic reunion of Jacob and Esau, after twenty years of separation. Commentaries assume that Jacob was returning because his mother had sent him a message saying that Esau had forgiven him, but we see from our Parasha that Jacob did not feel sufficiently confident to rely on her message. When Jacob sent gift-bearing messengers to his brother, they returned and told him that Esau was approaching with 400 people. Jacob assumed that his brother intended to attack.

For this pending reunion, Jacob simultaneously prepared himself in three different ways simultaneously. He sent an impressive gift to Esau, hoping to buy his forgiveness; he prayed, hoping that God would intervene and protect him and his family; and he separated his camp into two, preparing for war. In Rashi’s view, this combination indicates Jacob’s virtue. It would have been inappropriate for Jacob not to prepare his people to defend themselves, but it would also have been inappropriate for him not to attempt to placate his brother and avoid fighting altogether. It would have been inappropriate for Jacob not to ask for God’s help, but it would also have been inappropriate for him to neglect natural preparations and assume that God would save them supernaturally. All three actions needed.

Commentaries wonder why Jacob was so afraid, when twenty years earlier God had promised to return him safely to his home. They suggest that Jacob feared that he may have sinned during his years away, making him no longer worthy of God’s protection. God’s promise would have been made under false pretenses and would be non-binding. “We do not rely on a miracle” we are told in Talmudic tradition, even if God has explicitly promised one. We are to use natural means to attain our various needs. According to Judaism, neglecting earthly methods under the guise of belief in God actually means our belief is weak.

Nowadays, Jacob’s three methods equally apply in our efforts to eradicate anti-Semitism and ensure Jewish safety. We need to follow the instructions of security experts to protect our people and our institutions, we need to take positive steps to build bridges, friendships and understanding with our neighbours, and we also need to derive strength and comfort from our Jewish tradition to never despair. Responsibly following Jacob’s example, we should feel confident that God will eternally preserve us as promised.