I actually don't think we have to fear fear itself. Fear is normal, and the most important thing is not to be overwhelmed by fear. Fear can motivate us to act--sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse--and one way or another, we best face the truth when we become intimate with our fear.
Acting in Fear
When we think of our patriarch Jacob, we might conjure any number of images. A trickster bilking his brother, fooling his father, and swindling his uncle. A lover, weeping at the well where he meets his beloved wife or tearing his clothes in grief as he mourns the son of his old age. A pilgrim, loyally following God throughout the promised land, dedicating monuments and altars with his oaths of devotion. And Jacob is also a man who faces tremendous fear, and it isn’t hard to see ourselves in his complicated response.
In last week’s Torah reading, God appears to Jacob as he toils in his uncle Laban’s house, instructing him to return to his native land. Jacob conspires with Rachel and Leah to steal away by night, and Laban chases him in hot pursuit. Only when Laban overtakes Jacob and his family do we get insight into Jacob’s state of mind. Laban demands, “Why did you flee in secrecy?” (Gen. 31:27) and Jacob responds, כִּי יָרֵאתִי “Because was afraid! Because I thought, what if you tear your daughters away from me by force?” (Gen. 31:31). Jacob wanted to protect his family—including both Rachel and Leah as well—from the jealous and devious Laban, so he takes to flight in the dead of night.
Then, in this week’s parashah, Jacob has scarcely concluded with Laban a tentative truce when he once again fears for his family’s safety. As he heads toward Canaan, Jacob sends word to his brother, Esau, whose death threat had scared Jacob away from home in the first place. His message is an overture of peace, and when the messengers return, they bring no verbal reply from Esau. Instead, they tell Jacob Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men at his side.
When Jacob hears this, we read וַיִּירָא יַעֲקֹב מְאֹד וַיֵּצֶר לוֹ, “Jacob was very afraid, and it troubled him” (Gen. 32:8). He turns to God and begs for protection. “Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, כִּי־יָרֵא אָנֹכִי אֹתוֹ for I fear him that he may come and strike me down, mother [falling] upon children” (Gen. 32:12). He divides his camp as means of protecting them and sends elaborate gifts to mollify the brother he imagines wants to kill him. In the middle of the night, he separates himself from all his family and flocks, וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב לְבַדּוֹ, “And Jacob was left utterly alone” (Gen. 32:25).
It is here, in this literal and metaphorical darkness, that Jacob famously wrestles the angel. Flight is no longer an option, so he fights; and, ultimately, he wins. He extracts a blessing from the mysterious assailant, who changes his name from Yaakov to Yisrael כִּי־שָׂרִיתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁים וַתּוּכָל, “For you have struggled with God and with men, and you have prevailed” (Gen. 32:29). The sun rises, his brother embraces him with love and forgiveness and not the dreaded revenge, and Jacob continues his journeys in the promised land.
Two adjacent encounters, one with Laban and one with Esau. In neither of these stories is Jacob paralyzed by fear. Rather, he acknowledges his fear and announces it out loud—to Laban, to God, and to himself. Fear wounds Jacob, and it will continue to haunt him for many years; but it does not overpower him. Indeed, one of Jacob’s names for God is Pachad, fear (Gen. 31:42, 53). It is his constant and trusted companion.
And as we fashion ourselves Children of Israel, we can see ourselves aspiring to this kind of relationship with fear. It is inevitable that, at times, we will be afraid. Sometimes, as with Jacob and Laban, fear is justified and motivates us to smart, self-protective action. Sometimes, though, as with Jacob and Esau, fear is unfounded and drives us to make costly miscalculations and personal insults. It’s almost impossible to know, in the moment, which kind of fear we’re facing; but so long as we’re facing it full-on and acknowledging its presence, we’re taking important steps toward confronting the truth.
In these chapters of Torah, Jacob speaks honestly and painfully to many others: to his wives, with each of whom he has a complicated relationship; to his uncle, who gave him everything he has but who also sought to exploit him whenever he could; to his brother, whose animus forced a young Jacob to flee for his very life; and to God, whose inscrutable promises propel Jacob from one side of the Middle East to the other. And he speaks, as well, to himself, and it may be with his own conscience that he wrestles in the darkness, facing his own failures and insecurities, his doubts and despairs, his longing for connections and realization that, especially in the middle of the night, it is dangerously easy to feel completely alone.
Fear can pervade any of our relationships just as it manifests in Jacob’s own. With not only our foes but our loved ones as well, and within our inmost selves and even as we seek out the divine spark that makes us who we are. How much the more so the outside world, which threatens in its contentious complexity to overwhelm our lives and the objects of our concern. We are fools if we can’t see that, near at home or far abroad, there is reason to be afraid.
The song we’ve learned has it wrong. Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar m’od, it starts—the whole world is a very narrow bridge. V’ha-ikar lo l’fached k’lal, and the most important thing is not to be afraid. But actually, the song’s composer, Baruch Chait, changed the teaching he based the lyrics on. It came from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who did not say that the most important thing in life is not to be afraid. Rather, Nachman, who was troubled all his life by depression and fear, actually said וְהָעִקָּר שֶׁלּא יִתְפַּחֵד כְּלָל, the most important thing is not to let fear entirely overtake you. It’s not as catchy, but it’s far more true.
Each of us, from time to time, will find ourselves in Jacob’s shoes. And when we do, may his story be a model for our own: a model of finding a way to act even when facing our fears. Being intimate with our fears helps us understand them, and understanding can help bring us, in time, closer to respite and to peace.
 לקוטי מוהר"ן תנינא מח, https://he.wikisource.org/wiki/לקוטי_מוהר"ן_תנינא_מח. Read more about the text behind the song here: https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/494107?lang=bi.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”