5768 - #10


T.B. Shabbat 32a informs us, from how Yaakov Avinu responded to the threat of Esav, that one should not place himself/herself in a dangerous situation, relying upon a miracle to escape the peril. Although God promised Yaakov to protect him,1 our forefather still took action in preparing for battle, and for the escape of some of his family, if that was to be the outcome. Yaakov’s statement in Bereishit 32:11, the gemara explains, offers insight into why Yaakov did so and chose not to rely upon a miracle. Who is to say that a miracle will indeed be performed? And even if it does occur, there is a consequence – its performance will be deducted from our merits; in this specific Torah case, Yaakov’s merits. It seems that Yaakov did not want his merits to be reduced in return for God’s miraculous intervention on his behalf.

             Is it God’s intervention that concerns Yaakov or is it specifically God’s miraculous intervention that is his concern? If it is indeed the latter that is his concern, why is there this distinction? I ask these questions because the gemara’s conclusion and this verse’s teaching are somewhat bewildering. The context of this verse is, actually, a prayer by Yaakov for protection. If we are to learn from this verse that we should shy away from creating the need for God to intervene, why is Yaakov then praying, asking for God’s intervention? Does this not show that, in spite of the fact that we do lose merit with God’s intervention in this world on our behalf, we nonetheless must pray for that intervention when it is demanded? After all, this is what Yaakov did. How exactly does this verse teach us that we are not to stand in a place of danger, relying upon God’s intervention as it detracts from our merits, when in fact Yaakov is praying for that intervention?

             There are actually many different possible paths that can be undertaken to answer this question. One is not that we are never supposed to pray for God’s intervention; we are not supposed to enter into situations that demand of us to seek God’s intervention, as this intervention leads to a loss of merit. Nonetheless, if we find ourselves thrust into a dangerous situation we are obviously supposed to pray to God to help. This actually may explain why the gemara specifically learns that we are not to put ourselves in places of danger, from this case of Yaakov, even though that wasn’t exactly Yaakov’s situation. Esav was traveling towards him; Yaakov was not seeking Esav. What we actually learn from the verse is simply that God’s intervention has a price of a deduction of merits; that is why Yaakov states, at the beginning of his prayer, that he is not worthy for, due to God’s pervious kindnesses, he has lost merit. Nonetheless, Yaakov still seeks God’s intervention in his present, dangerous situation. 

             Another possibility may lie in distinguishing between a miraculous intervention by God and a non-miraculous intervention. Miraculous interventions may lead to a deduction of merit but an intervention through the ways of nature may not have such cost. The fact is that it is impossible to speak of a world, an event, a case, whereby God does not intervene. In every aspect of existence, God inherently intervenes. As such it is difficult to speak of God’s interventions as carrying a cost of merits. The fact is, though, that, in line with God’s purpose for the existence of this world, this intervention is to coincide with the rules of nature. It is when God intervenes outside of these rules, through miracles, that we find our merits deducted in consequence of such intervention. Yaakov, as such, in his prayer, stated that he met all the needs of the situation within the realm of nature and was praying for God to intervene in nature to assure the results for which he wished, but still results that do not contradict the way of nature and the involvement of humanity in what occurs. It is the miraculous intervention that we are to attempt to avoid because of its cost to us in our merits.

              Such works as Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto’s Da’at Tevunot attempt to understand why God created this world. If God is, by definition HaTov v’HaMeitiv, the Good and the Giver of Good, why did He simply not directly create a world that is totally good? The classical answer to this question is that God wished to create the possibility for the human being to earn the good, for a good that is earned is a greater good. This is the purpose of this world, a place where human beings can earn the good. What is often overlooked with this statement is that it also presents a dichotomy in our understanding of God. To allow the human being to earn reward necessitates God allowing aspects of existence to be dependent upon the actions and will of humanity. God’s essence is tov and meitiv. As such it is God’s Will that human beings should always receive the good. To allow, though, human beings to earn their reward, God had to override His Will to give and allow the achievement of the good to be dependent upon the accomplishments of the human being. God bringing a miracle to save a human being from harm is actually an action totally in line with God’s Essence and Will; He is HaTov v’HaMeitiv. For that not to happen, God must override His very Will to allow the actions of the human being to determine what will occur.2 Of course, God is the final arbiter of all that occurs but when He acts totally within the rules of nature, the human element is still recognized. The human being is still involved; merit still is a possibility.

             Yaakov, in response to the threat of Esav, responded totally within the rules of nature. The result, to some extent, was based on the actions of humanity. Yaakov can still pray for God to intervene on his behalf, within these parameters, for the Divine purpose for the world is not thereby challenged. What occurs is still, to some extent, dependent on humanity, Not so in the case of a miracle. In such a case we are asking God to totally act in response to His Will, His Essence of tov and meitiv. To balance that with the very purpose of the world, human merit must be lost. What is really lost is the very value of human merit

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Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 Bereishit 41:1-40

2 See T.B. Berachot, chapter 9.

3 Bereishit 41:39

4 Bereishit 41:38

5 Of course, Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 7:1 states that, in order to be a prophet, one must be wise, yet Pharaoh’s contention that Yosef is wise would seem to be much more direct. Something Yosef did established him as wise in the eyes of Pharaoh.

6 See the view of S.D. Luzzatto in the words of Nechama Leibowitz mention in the body of the Insight

Nishma, 2007


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