Vayishlach begins with Jacob receiving word back from his scouts that his brother, Esau, is amassing a small army and closing in for a fight. (Genesis 32:7) In response, Jacob splits his camp into two, figuring that v’haya hamachene hanishar lifleita — as a consequence, the “camp that remains shall be able to escape.” (32:8-9)
Why does Jacob feel the need to split his camp — didn’t he just receive the blessing from his father and realize that his destiny is greater than what his own life can produce?
So we are often reminded that one cannot rely on miracles, and this idiom frequently swoops in to save us in times of difficult biblical interpretation — but I’d like to say that our perspective should not be so unfavorable. It’s not so much an issue of relying on miracles — because we no longer see overt miracles — and if that’s what this is all about, how are we to learn a lesson from Jacob? How are we to gain insight in 2010 from Jacob’s avoidance of miracle-summoning thousands of years ago?
After reading the tachanun prayer in English, one can sense that there’s lots of fascinating insights contained if only one understands the words he or she is saying — so let’s look at the first sentence of the non-Monday/Thursday tachanun, taken from Samuel II 24:14 and see how it falls directly in line with Jacob’s splitting of his camp:
And David said unto Gad: ‘I am in a great strait; let us fall now into the hand of the LORD; for His mercies are great; and let me not fall into the hand of man.’
After being informed of his grave trespass in counting the people, David is given a choice of punishments by God through the prophet Gad: famine, foreign attack or some form of a plague. In response, David makes the aforementioned declaration, and chooses the last of the three options.
In elaborating on his choice, David explains that he is sticking with God — he can trust in God’s mercy but not that of man. This reminds me of the best explanation I’ve heard as to why the Egyptians of yore were punished so harshly for seemingly doing nothing more than God Himself had ordered; if the Israelites were to be enslaved, surely there had to be enslavers, and certainly they had to be brutal…I mean, what’s slavery without brutality? What, did we expect stock options, paternal leave and good dental?
So the answer is that the Egyptians went too far. Yes, they exceeded God’s design and were extra brutal and super nasty — and they paid for it. King David was hesitant to allow human involvement in God’s punishment, lest they take it too far. From here we see that free will and divine intervention maintain such a delicate balance that people can defy God and interact with others in a way that God had not intended; let’s face it, it’s catchy, but Jason Mraz is incorrect when he declares that nothing’s gonna stop him but divine intervention. So David picked the pestilence, because all of nature excluding human action falls well within the realm of the complete and utter domination of the Almighty One, Blessed be He. The viral and/or bacterial component of God’s third punishment option would not supersede His plan — acting on instinct alone, the microbiological insult would begin and end on schedule, leaving David comfortable to accept whatever it was that God had planned for him and the Jewish people.
Getting back to Vayishlach — Jacob understood that God runs the world but that people have a particular cunning to run free with what they do and how they do it. So yes, God made promises, but then again, Esau could ruin them — so he had to take precautions.