In this week’s parshah, our ancestor Jacob was afraid, very afraid. As the deeds of the patriarchs are a paradigm for their descendants his fear is worth considering. We too have our fears: We hear the attacks of terrorists, taking innocent lives, seeking to break our spirits. We read the venom of those who demonize Israel – and all Jews. We walk with those without jobs, without savings or hope.
How would Jacob, to whom God had personally promised security and blessing have faced such fears? Of what was he afraid?
We read (Genesis 32:8) that when Jacob hears of his brother Esau’s approach with a significant military force, “Jacob became very frightened and he was distressed.”
The Mechilta suggests Jacob feared that he was undeserving of God’s promise. “Woe is me, perhaps my sins have made me forfeit God’s protection.” Yes, clearly Jacob feared his brother Esau. The danger is real. But he understood that – without exonerating the aggressor, he needed to take some personal responsibility for his dangerous position.
This is not self-flagellation. It is a call to examine our own actions in relation to situations where we fear. Perhaps we may find that a closer adherence to our middot, Jewish values in our interpersonal, economic and political lives may lessen the danger. Like Jacob – how much more so than Jacob! we can never assume ourselves worthy of miraculous salvation. We can work toward living holier lives, to being our best selves. While this approach may not allay our fears, it enables us to face them as menschen.
Rashi focuses on the two expressions for Jacob’s fear in the verse,, and sees two different ideas: Perhaps he will be killed, and perhaps he will be forced to kill others.”
The first fear is real and natural. As in Jacob’s day, there are those who would seek our lives. Most of us, even if prepared to die in battle, still want to live. The second fear, which “distresses” Jacob, is a moral one. Jacob is ready to defend his family; he will fight and kill if he must. But he hates the thought. He is tortured by the idea of living by the sword, of going too far, of becoming like Esau. His sensitivity is so high that even what he may be permitted to do, even must do – is abhorrent to him as it runs against his perception of the higher Divine values.
Jacob sets a high bar. Though our times may be frightening, we should accustom ourselves – especially when the enemy curses us (tzar ham’nabeach) not to succumb to baser instincts, not to go overboard and let fear lead us to blind hatred,and to leaving compassion and generosity behind. It’s so easy to give in to the rage, or its opposite, despair. Jacob would not give in; we, his descendants are challenged to live through our fears in a way of which we will not be ashamed.
The Netziv adds another layer. In Haamek Davar he understands”the first phrase (became frightened) to refer to the real fear of Esau…the second phrase (was distressed) to mean that Jacob was distressed by the fact that such fear had come upon him, as he realized that it meant that evil was on the way.
Yes, evil would follow his fear – not just the evil of Esau’s potential warmaking, but the evil caused by the fear itself. Like Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Netziv’s Jacob realizes that fear itself is the worst enemy, most to be feared. It can paralyze people, distort their thinking processes, bend their moral values. It would be the effects of fear which would keep him only Jacob, the heel-grabber, and not allow him to grow spiritually into Israel. Small wonder his fear distressed him, and he sought to manage it.
We too have to manage our fears lest they deafen us to the voice of our neshama, our soul. We see that Jacob did so. He strengthened his faith with prayer, and prepared to meet his fear face to face – whether in war or peace, in poverty or plenty. And he did so as himself, his best self.
As we face our own fears, whatever they may be, how can we do less? We will not be unmade by the terror of night, the arrow that flies by day. In controlling our fears lest they control us, in striving to act in ways consonant with our highest nature – with Torah’s dictates- even at the scariest of moments we stand in the shade of our great ancestor, and partake of his courage.