Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 6 December 2014 / 14 Kislev 5775

Parshat Vayishlach

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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In the beginning of this Parsha, Yaakov is told that his brother Esav, accompanied by a formidable army of 400 men, is coming to meet him. Not sure of his brother’s intentions, Yaakov prepares for the eventuality of a military confrontation. As the Torah states, “So he divided the people with him, and the flocks, cattle and camels, into two camps. For he said, ‘if Esav comes to the one camp and strikes it down, then the remaining camp shall survive.’” He then sends some of his men and animals ahead in order to offer a tribute to Esav. The Torah then continues, “But he got up that night and took his two wives, his two handmaids, and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. And when he took them and had them cross over the stream, he sent over his possessions.” After the famous narrative of his struggle with the angel, his entire entourage comes face to face with Esav and his men.

Abarbanel is puzzled by the fact that it appears that Esav is confronting only one camp, which appears to include all of Yaakov’s wives, children and possessions. What exactly did the second camp consist of and where was it located? In his explanation, Abarbanel brings to light a fundamental principle of how a Jew should respond to physical danger. Rather than relying on a miraculous Divine intervention, we are required to take all the available natural steps to succeed. If Esav was intent on harming him, Yaakov knew that a direct confrontation, absent a Divine intervention, would spell disaster. He decided to create two camps, one consisting only of animals, household goods and the servants required to take care of them, while his wives and children would be in the second camp. The Jabbok River would separate the two camps. Yaakov calculated that Esav would be traveling in such a way that he would first encounter the camp without his family. He hoped that Esav would be held up temporarily and even when he inevitably prevailed, the distance between the two camps would be great enough to allow the family to escape. Another possibility was that Esav would be satisfied with the captured booty and would allow the other camp to escape without pursuit.

G-d, however, had other plans. Esav chose a completely different route, did not have to cross the river, and ended up confronting Yaakov and his family first. In the end, of course, the reunion with Esav is peaceful. Both camps survive intact, are reunited and continue on their way. This is a clear example of the verse in Proverbs (19:21) “Many designs are in a man’s heart, but the counsel of G-d, only it will prevail.” Even though Yaakov’s planning was for naught, G-d saw to it that the end result was even better than he had hoped for. The results of our efforts are always in G-d’s hands but we are still obligated to make those efforts in the most logical and well-thought-out manner possible.

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