Vayishlach – In the Worst-Case Scenario

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Yaakov, preparing to meet his brother Esav, on his way back to Canaan, prepares himself for the worst possible scenario, as reported in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Vayishlach. “The angels returned to Yaakov, saying, ‘We came to your brother, to Esav, and he is also coming toward you, and four hundred men are with him.’ Yaakov became very frightened and was distressed; so he divided the people who were with him and the flocks and the cattle and the camels into two camps” (Breishis 32:7,8).

The Lesson the Ralbag learns from here is that it is fitting for a person to always be afraid and to judge things through the lens of the worst possible scenario, in order to focus on how to escape them. We see this from the fact that when Yaakov  heard about his brother Esav coming towards him with 400 men, he was afraid that Esav was coming to hurt him, despite having been guaranteed by Hashem that He would protect him and be with him. Indeed, Yaakov could have assumed that Esav was coming out with all of his men in order to show honor to Yaakov and to protect him. But still Yaakov used all of his brainpower to strategize how to save his family as best as possible. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

This is quite astonishing?! What happened to judging others favorably? Why must we always be afraid and imagine the worst possible scenarios that might befall us? Won’t that lead to anxiety and depression? What happened to serving Hashem out of Joy? Above all, what happened to the concept of bitachon, trust in Hashem? Especially in this case, where Hashem had assured Yaakov that no harm would be done to him and that Hashem would be with him? Even if you say Yaakov wasn’t sure whether he deserved being protected then his response should be to try to act more appropriately and gain assurance to be protected by Hashem, but not to take matters into your own hands?

We see an incredibly new insight into hishtadlus, our own efforts in life. We must say that part of serving Hashem is to put every effort into taking care of ourselves, within our natural boundaries. Even though having emuna and bitachon, belief and trust in Hashem, are very important mitzvos yet there is also a mitzvah for us to take care of ourselves within the boundaries of the world around us. Therefore we have a mitzvah to think of all possible scenarios, even the “worst-case scenario,” and take measures to ensure that it does not come to pass. This is part of our service of Hashem, even if Hashem tells us nothing wrong will happen to us. However, the feeling of fear one should always have is only healthy if it is being channeled into figuring out how to help yourself. But if you start feeling helpless and stressed out, that is a sign that you are not doing the right thing and one should then power up his faith in Hashem.

It is a mitzvah to have a tremendous amount of emuna and bitachon for one’s emotional state of mind but part of that faith in Hashem is the obligation to always be afraid something wrong might happen and one has to put in all his efforts to be sure he physically is able to survive to the best of his ability.