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A perennial religious problem

by Rabbi M. Kripke
When Jacob returns to Canaan after 20 years, he is immediately confronted with the problem of how to meet his brother Esau.

Jacob had reason to fear the confrontation, particularly when his own advance men tell him that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 armed men.

The Midrash suggests that Jacob prayed that God not permit Esau to accomplish what he thought to do. And the Midrash details Esau’s thought as a plan to kill both Isaac, his father, and Jacob, his brother.

The Midrash then goes on to say that there were two others like Esau, who thought to do evil, but whose plans were frustrated by the Lord Himself, namely, Haman and Jeroboam.

The Midrash toys here with a perennial religious problem. To what extent may we say that it is true that the Lord frustrates the designs of evil people? For example, why did the Midrash not include Pharaoh?

I remember hearing a prominent American Jewish theologian rejoicing over the fall of Hitler and going on to say that the Lord would not permit Hitler’s plans of murdering all Jews to succeed.

But I remember sitting and listening, and wondering: What took You so long?

And as soon as that question is raised, the whole theory is attacked, the theory that religion advances, that there is a divine plan to which history inevitably responds.

Despite its lack of theological sophistication, the Midrash may have the best answer. It suggests, on the basis of the text itself, that Jacob responded to danger in a many-sided plan: He sent gifts on ahead to win Esau over; he prayed to God for help, and he prepared to do battle. What the Midrash is really saying here — is that we pray as if everything depended on God, but we must act as if everything depended on ourselves.

In a world of human beings, good and evil, time and chance, we may not rely on the divine frustration of the plans of evil minds or the ravages of nature.