Vayishlach: Confronting Our Fears

by Aviva Stern 

Aviva Stern

Aviva Stern (ML ’03) serves the community of Efrat as a Yoetzet Halacha and teaches middle school Judaic studies at the Orot Etzion School for Girls.

20 years ago, Yaakov left the Land of Canaan. He was alone, penniless, and fleeing for his life from his brother Eisav.

For 20 years, Yaakov lived in Aram. He married, built a family, amassed wealth, all under the influence of his uncle, Lavan. After 20 long years, he is finally returning home.

Now, at the opening of parshat Vayishlach, Yaakov sends messengers to inform Eisav of his impending return. The message he tells them to relay is as follows (Bereshit 32:5-6):

“…כה תאמרון לאדני לעשו כה אמר עבדך יעקב עם לבן גרתי ואחר עד עתה. ויהי לי שור וחמור צאן ועבד ושפחה ואשלחה להגיד לאדני למצא חן בעיניך.”

“To my lord Esau, thus says your servant Jacob: I stayed with Laban and remained until now; I have acquired cattle, donkeys, sheep, and male and female slaves; and I send this message to my lord in the hope of gaining your favor.’”

Whatever Yaakov may have been feeling after 20 years – perhaps apprehension or fear – his emotions do not show through in his message. He is respectful, informative, and positive, and, according to the Rashbam’s understanding of the verses, the report he receives in return from his messengers seems similarly positive. The Rashbam explains that Eisav’s favor was gained, just as Yaakov had hoped and requested! He was coming to greet Yaakov in excitement and happiness, and to honor his brother he would arrive with an entourage of 400 men. 

The Rashbam’s interpretation reflects the simple meaning of the text, and it is supported by the language used elsewhere when the Torah describes the only other instance of brothers reuniting after an extended period of time. In parshat Shemot (4:14), a very similar phrase to the one that we find in our parsha, גם הנה הוא יוצא לקראתך / “Behold, he is going out to meet you,” is used to describe Aharon going out to meet Moshe, and the verse concludes וראך ושמח בלבו, that Aharon would rejoice in reuniting with Moshe. As far as the Rashbam understands it, the Torah is using similar language to inform us that Eisav is happy and excited to see Yaakov again after so many years, just as Aharon was happy to reunite with Moshe.

20 years prior, Eisav and Yaakov were boys, competing for their parents’ love, affection, blessings, and wealth. Eisav threatened to kill Yaakov out of jealous rage. But now, 20 years later, both boys have become men. Both brothers have wives and children of their own and have amassed significant wealth. Surely, Eisav’s grudge has subsided and he is happy to reunite with his brother after 20 years! Yaakov’s messengers assure him that this is the case.

Yaakov knows this to be true, intellectually. But, emotionally, he struggles to accept the new reality. 

   – (32:7) “ויירא יעקב מאד ויצר לו” 

Yaakov is extremely scared. The memories of a brother who would have killed him out of anger have resurfaced, and this fear drives the actions that follow: sending gifts to appease Eisav, strategically organizing his family into camps, and desperately pleading with God to save him. Perhaps this element of human psychology is also what drives the Midrash, quoted by Rashi, to assume the worst about Eisav and his intentions. The Midrash interprets that Eisav is as evil as ever, that 400 men are at his side to wage a war, and that even as the brothers embrace, Eisav makes one last attempt to harm Yaakov.

God sends a message to Yaakov, and to all who empathize with his emotional albeit irrational fear. God sends this message in the form of an angel with whom Yaakov must fight. The Midrash suggests that Yaakov wrestled with the angel of Eisav to demonstrate his strength and upper hand to both Eisav and to himself. Rashbam, consistent with his text-based approach, suggests that God sent an angel in order to detain Yaakov, who would have otherwise fled with his family due to his irrational fear and never faced Eisav at all.

Both interpretations lead us to the same conclusion: Gifts, military strategy, and even prayer are not enough for Yaakov to internalize the message that he need not fear his brother Eisav. It takes an entire night of introspection, of struggle, of surviving an encounter with the divine and emerging victorious. It also takes a scar, which he will carry forward personally and of which his descendants will forever be reminded.

But why? What is Yaakov so afraid of?

We know that first impressions stick. But, we are sometimes unaware of how our first and often negative impressions of others stay with us. Sometimes we hold grudges against family members and friends, rendering ourselves unable to engage in healthy relationships. Sometimes we assume the worst about a future situation based upon a past experience. So often we are afraid to do what we know is right because we are gripped with the fear of what could go wrong.

Yaakov knew that his time in Aram must come to an end. He knew that the influences of Lavan’s house were toxic and that the time had come to return home to the Land of Canaan, to the land of Avraham and Yitzchak. When he takes his first steps on his journey home, he is greeted and escorted by angels. And yet, his fear of Eisav consumes him to an irrational degree. God’s lesson to Yaakov, and to all of us, is not to let these old judgments and biases take hold of us. Do not let the worst-case scenarios dictate our decisions. Each of us must struggle with his or her personal angel, clear our clouded vision, and head in the direction in which God points us.

Yaakov’s name is changed to Yisrael to reflect his struggle and his victory, and yet this name- change is not an exclusive one. The Torah continues to refer to him as Yaakov, in addition to Yisrael, as if to say that the past that Yaakov carries with him has not been erased. But, our past experiences shape us, and they should not be disregarded. We should never let old grudges, biases, or fears cloud our vision of the future. We are the Children of Israel, who strive to see the light and the good that surrounds us, and who let God lead us on the path of righteousness and truth.


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