David Walk
David Walk

Fear Itself

Perhaps, the scariest words one can utter are, ‘Oh, don’t worry. There’s nothing to be afraid of.’ People are only given that message when there definitely is ‘something to be afraid of’. Here’s the kicker: Fear developed because it’s good for you. As Dr. Amanda Glickman wrote in Psychology Today magazine: Fear warns us of imminent danger, and it spreads in part through signs of others’ fright. Clearly, fear is good for us, and keeps us safe. 

But is that the whole picture? When fears are persistent and impair one’s ability to function, then they become phobias or anxiety, roadblocks to success in life. Again, Psychology Today: At least 60% of adults admit to having unreasonable fears. The other 40% are afraid to admit it. I just made that last statistic up. Actually, it is usually beneficial to overcome these last types of fears. Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, ‘Do one thing every day that scares you.’ Good advice from someone who overcame debilitating fears, like glossophobia, fear of public speaking. 

So, how do you know which kind of fear is being experienced? Usually, by observing others. If many other people fly regularly or see blood without ill effect, then it’s probably a phobia for you. Recognizing that it’s a phobia is only the first step. It still may take a lot of time and help to overcome it. All of this is true, unless you’re Ya’akov Avinu. 

Ya’akov seems to spend a lot time afraid. On occasion we’re actually told that he’s afraid, like when he awakens after the dream of the ladder, “How fearful is this place (Breishit 28:17). Then before his meeting with Esav, we’re informed, ‘Ya’akov was greatly frightened and anxious (32:8). However, other times we just sense his fear, ‘If father touches me, I will be seen as a deceiver’ (27:12), or ‘You have brought trouble upon me, we will be odious among the inhabitants of this land’ (34:30). 

In our parsha, it’s God who informs us that Ya’akov is afraid, ‘Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation’ (46:3). The fear of Ya’akov, and his descendants is an eternal reality. Yirmiyahu tells us that God declares, ‘But you, have no fear, my servant Ya’akov, no despair Yisrael’ (30:10). That verse spawned a famous Motzei Shabbat song, which encourages us to face the difficult week ahead. 

The Ohr HaChayim reasonably asks, ‘But wasn’t it reasonable for Ya’akov to be afraid.’ Afterall, he’s leading his large family into exile. His father had been told not to go to Egypt (26:2), and, according to the Ohr HaChayim, Ya’akov was aware of the Brit Bein HaB’tarim promise of centuries in exile in a hostile environment. So, it seems this fear was reasonable, indeed. 

The suggestion of the Ohr HaChayim concerning the nature of Ya’akov’s fear doesn’t really appeal to me. He explains that God is informing Ya’akov that he shouldn’t be afraid because he, personally, wouldn’t see the harsh bondage and he, personally, would be brought back to Eretz Yisrael for burial in Ma’arat HaMachpela. Okay, but I think that Ya’akov was looking at the bigger picture of Jewish Destiny not just personal issues, and so should we. 

To my thinking, the Chizkuni is more satisfying. He looks at the issue from the national vantage point. Ya’akov is correctly concerned that the promise given to Avraham Avinu was about to be fulfilled, and God is reassuring him about that eventuality. The Chizkuni says: God hinted that although he was correct in assuming that the warning would soon be fulfilled, but by the same token, the promise made to all the three Patriarchs that they would develop into a great nation, is coming closer to its fulfillment, too.  

All this assumes that the ‘stranger in a strange land’ scenario is somehow required for the ‘you will become a great nation’ promise. Maybe, but I think that a Chasidishe Rebbe, the Kedushat Levi, is actually closer to the P’SHAT (literal meaning of the text) than these usually more literal commentaries. 

Reb Levi Yitzchak explains that when we look at the words of the reassurance, we clearly see that it’s not about where he will be buried or the great destiny of the Jewish nation. It’s about a simple promise: I, Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I, Myself will also bring you back (46:4). 

Ya’akov is experiencing the great Jewish fear throughout our long history: HESTER PANIM or Divine abandonment. Ya’akov felt distant from God during his decades in the house of Lavan. He doesn’t want to experience that terrible gulf between him and his God again. Even the dream of the Ladder only promised protection, not Divine proximity. When he dreams in the house of Lavan, he hears from an angel. There is no Godly presence as there was on the Ladder, when he was still in Eretz Yisrael. 

This is very much like the famous statement at the end of Tractate Ketubot: This is because anyone who lives in Eretz Yisrael is like one who that has a God, but anyone who lives in the Diaspora is like one who does not (110b). 

That’s the great Jewish fear: Distance from God. Often the great separation is felt most keenly in the Diaspora. But wherever we may be, we must always hear God’s promise to Ya’akov: Don’t be afraid, keep trying to contact Me. As King David taught us, we’re only REGA B’APO (Momentarily in God’s anger and absence, Psalms 30:4). Never fear keeping in touch with God. 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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