By R’ Mordechai Young
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, once had a pistol pointed to his head. He said, “That only scares one who believes in two powers and one world. A Yid believes in one power — Hashem — and two worlds, so that doesn’t scare me.”
In this week’s parashah, Vayishlach, Eisav was approaching Yaakov with 400 men, ready to attack. The pasuk says (32:8), וַיִּירָ֧א יַֽעֲקֹ֛ב מְאֹ֖ד, “Yaakov became very frightened.” Rashi says he was afraid of being killed. On the next words, וַיֵּ֣צֶר ל֑וֹ, “and it distressed him,” Rashi explains that he was distressed to think he might kill others.
In Sefer Devarim (20:8), the pasuk discusses the officers speaking to the nation before war. Certain people had an exemption from battle; for example, someone who built a new house but didn’t get to live in it yet. Another exemption was: מִֽי־הָאִ֤ישׁ הַיָּרֵא֙ וְרַ֣ךְ הַלֵּבָ֔ב, “Who is the man who is fearful and faint of heart.” The Ibn Ezra explains that “the one who is fearful” means afraid to hit another, and “faint of heart” means afraid to get hit. This person was exempt from war because of his fear. Can we say Ya’akov Avinu was similar to such a man and would have had to leave the battlefield because of that fear?
The Kli Yakar in our parashah asks: Why was Yaakov afraid when Hashem told him a few times he would protect him? He answers that in the Gemara Sotah, Rebbe Elazar says, “Anyone who flatters his friend ends up falling to him.” Here Yaakov realized that he “sinned” in flattering Eisav who was a rasha, by describing himself as Eisav’s servant and Eisav as his master. So he was afraid that his flattering Eisav could lead to falling to him. That is why he was afraid — not like an ordinary soldier who had fear of the battle itself that exempted him from battle.
We see from the Lubavitcher Rebbe that a Yid, at least a tzaddik, doesn’t fear death, so how could Yaakov be afraid?
The Gemara Berachos (28b) relates that when Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai became sick (it looked like he would be niftar), his students went to visit him. He saw them and started to cry. They were perplexed; why did the tzaddik appear afraid of death? He responded, “If they were taking me before a human king who is here today and could be in his grave tomorrow … If he is angry at me it’s not an eternal anger … I can appease him with words and get out of the trouble with money, and yet I would cry. How much more so as I am going to be judged by Hashem [Who is immortal] and isn’t emotional and there is no bribing or appeasing Him. There are two paths before me: one of Gan Eden and the other.”
The tzaddik wasn’t afraid of death in the physical sense, but rather the spiritual aspect — the judgement that maybe he didn’t live up to his potential. So, Yaakov’s fear was not of physically dying, but facing the intense judgement that would happen as a consequence.
The Nesivos Shalom also asks why was Yaakov afraid. The Gemara explains that Yaakov thought that even though Hashem said He would protect him, maybe he sinned and lost out on being protected. The Nesivos Shalom adds: Even so, when a person trusts in Hashem that helps even if he does wrong. The pasuk states, “Trust in Hashem and do what is good.” It doesn’t first mention do what is good, because a person who trusts Hashem will always be watched regardless of his actions. In the sefer Tallelei Oros, Rav Itzelle from Volozhin is quoted, saying that Yaakov was “afraid” of Eisav, and that emotion caused him pain, וַיֵּ֣צֶר ל֑וֹ, that he did not trust in Hashem (not to be afraid). There is a hint that וַיֵּ֣צֶר ל֑וֹ may be alluding to the yetzer ha’ra which got to him and caused him not to trust Hashem.
We are reminded that even if we are not on the level of a complete tzaddik, we should always trust in Hashem; the mitzvah and benefits are available to us all.
Rabbi Mordechai Young is available as a remedial rebbe and tutor. He can be reached for comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.