The Torah is famously laconic about the emotional lives of its central characters. We are left to imagine what Abraham was feeling as he walked up Mount Moriah with his son Isaac at his side, or what Rachel felt when she discovered that her older sister Leah had laid with Jacob in the marital bed intended for her.
It is all the more striking, then, that in this week’s portion, we are given a rare glimpse into Jacob’s inner state — as he prepares to meet his brother Esau for the first time in twenty years: “Jacob was very frightened, and distressed.” (Genesis 32:8)
Jacob had left home twenty years earlier, knowing that his brother wanted to kill him. What had happened in the intervening years? Had Esau’s rage intensified or abated? Who had Esau become? What were his intentions? Would they meet now as estranged brothers, seeking some measure of reconciliation, or as heavily armed adversaries, anticipating a decisive military confrontation?
The moment is filled with unspoken questions and anxieties. These are left to our imagination, as usual, but we are told that Jacob was terrified, and troubled. In fact, given the typical sparseness of the Torah’s language, many commentaries note an apparent redundancy, even in this short description of Jacob’s inner state:Jacob was both “very frightened” and “distressed.”
Why do we need two verbs here? What does each signify? What does each add to our understanding of Jacob’s character, or his condition as he awaits this encounter?
A midrash in Breishit Rabbah elaborates on this uncharacteristic wordiness in the biblical text: “’Jacob was very frightened, and he was distressed.’ Rabbi Judah the son of Rabbi Ila’i said: Isn’t this redundant? Isn’t fear the same as distress? We should understand from this that Jacob was concerned both about killing and about being killed. [Jacob] said to himself, ‘If he overpowers me, he will kill me, and if I overpower him, I will kill him. He was afraid because he did not want to kill, and he was distressed because he did not want to be killed.”
According to this midrash, Jacob carries the weight of these dual anxieties with him as he crosses the River Yabok. As descendants of Jacob, this is part of our legacy: we face battle fearing not only for our lives but for our humanity, distressed by the prospect of being either victim or victimizer.
From here the midrash continues, imagining other doubts going through Jacob’s mind that night: “[Jacob] said to himself, ‘All these years, [Esau] has been dwelling in the land of Israel. What if he comes upon me with the strength of having fulfilled that mitzvah? All these years, [Esau] has been living with and honoring his parents. What if he comes upon me with the strength of having fulfilled that mitzvah?’”
Significantly, Jacob is not simply afraid of Esau’s military advantage in this midrash. Something deeper is troubling him; it is as if he is questioning his own moral or spiritual superiority—indeed, he worries that he is in some ways inferior–as he prepares to face Esau in battle.
Jacob reveals here an extraordinary capacity to see both Esau and himself in shades of gray. Implicit in his recognition of some of Esau’s positive qualities is a nagging sense of dis-ease about some of the choices that he has made in his own life. Esau, after all, is the one who has been dwelling in the land of Israel all this time. Esau, after all, is the one who has been living with their parents, fulfilling the mitzvah of “honoring father and mother.”
The midrash then goes on to ask: “How can Jacob be feeling all this fear and anxiety, when God has already promised him, ‘Return to the land of your fathers where you were born, and I will be with you.’” (Genesis 31:3)
The underlying question of the midrash has to do with the very nature of faith: Does Jacob’s fear signify a failure of faith? Shouldn’t faith free us from fear?
To this unspoken question, the midrash responds: “There is no certainty for the righteous in this world.”
Several prooftexts are brought, but for this claim, no prooftexts are really needed. We know – intuitively, intimately — how true this is. Righteousness is no guarantee of divine protection. “There are no guarantees for the righteous”–indeed, there are no guarantees for anyone–the midrash says. That is not the way of the world.
Yet given the context of Jacob’s fear and anxiety, it seems like the midrash is going even a step further. When it says, “There is no certainty for the righteous in this world,” it is not only describing the reality of our insecurity, our vulnerability. It is suggesting that part of the existential condition of the tzaddik, of the righteous person, is that he lives with a measure of uncertainty, never being quite sure of his own righteousness and never being quite sure of the un-righteousness of his adversaries. In other words, the truly righteous person is never complacent. Part of what it means to be righteous is, in fact, to question oneself, to be prepared to see the good in others, even those with whom we might have to engage in battle.
In this context, Jacob’s fear is not an absence of faith, but an expression of a more mature, self-reflective, and arduous faith. It is the faith of one who knows there are no guarantees, but who is prepared to wrestle – with his own doubts and self-deceptions, with the brother from whom he has been running for twenty years, and ultimately with God. May we, his descendants, face our own battles with the same courage and humility, and in our wrestling, may we be blessed.
Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld is dean of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College.