This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4 – 36:43 continues with Jacob making his trek homeward. However, instead of rejoicing in the soon to be family reunion, this week’s reading begins with Jacob making plans to survive his imminent encounter with his brother Esau. Jacob, instead of trusting the promise HaShem had given him, “Behold, I am with you, and I will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land, for I will not forsake you until I have done what I promised you,” (Genesis 28:15), tried to arrange or maybe pacify things on his own. His first attempt at greeting his brother seemed to be less than favorably received, “Jacob became extremely afraid and distressed,” (Genesis 32:8). A potential war party of four hundred men led by Esau may well have been the cause of Jacob’s fear, especially as he did not have Rav Shaul’s words of comfort, “for we walk by faith, not by sight,” (2 Corinthians 5:7).
I want to stop here and acknowledge that making preparations for future situations is not a bad thing. As I write this, we have gas masks in storage in the bomb shelter in our apartment against the possibility of a future attack. There are other things that should be in there as well, but the lack of constant treat has led to the food stuffs and water being used over time and not replaced. People buy insurance—home, car, and health—to cover situations they hope never happens. Without a doubt, this is good and proper practice. Jacob’s planning for a potential future attack by his brother was not wrong, he was counting the cost of a potentially dangerous encounter with his brother. Jacob’s reasoning for dividing his camp could even be considered wise, “If Esau comes to one camp and strikes it, the camp that’s left will escape” (Genesis 32:9). What I want to emphasize here is not Jacob’s actions but the motivation that drove those actions.
In verse 8 Jacob was extremely afraid and destressed. In verse 12, we hear his prayer,
Deliver me, please, from my brother’s hand, from Esau’s hand, for I’m afraid of him that he’ll come and strike me—the mothers with the children.Genesis 32:12
Jacob could have rested in the promise of HaShem to which he at least mentally gave assent,
You Yourself said, “I will most certainly do good with you, and will make your seed like the sand of the sea that cannot be counted because of its abundance.”Genesis 32:13
But instead he allowed fear of reprisal of his past actions to darken the clouds surrounding his approaching encounter with his brother. Fear as a motivator for one’s actions is by no means unique to Jacob. In a September 23, 2009 online article from Psychology Today, author Robert Evans Wilson Jr. notes,
Fear is a primal instinct that … serves us today. It keeps us alive, because if we survive a bad experience, we never forget how to avoid it in the future. Our most vivid memories are born in fear. Adrenaline etches them into our brains.
Nothing makes us more uncomfortable than fear. And we have so many fears: fear of pain, disease, injury, failure, not being accepted, missing an opportunity, and being scammed, to name a few. Fear invokes the flight or fight system, and our first reaction is often to flee back to our comfort zone. If we don’t know the way back, we are likely to follow whoever shows us a path.https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-main-ingredient/200909/the-most-powerful-motivator
Fear is a reality of life. How we handle that fear is the most important issue. Continuing in the article above Mr. Wilson suggests that removing doubt is the key to overcoming fear: doubt that you will be delivered, you will overcome, you will succeed, etc. But, where is one supposed to find or to generate the power or the ability to overcome doubt? I suggest the power and ability comes from trusting the same thing that Jacob should have depended upon, the Word of God. As Moshe told Israel, that word is not far away but is near to us if we seek it, “the word is very near to you—in your mouth and in your heart, to do it,” (Deuteronomy 30:14). Consider these verses and hold them as words that are near,
ADONAI—He is the One who goes before you. He will be with you. He will not fail you or abandon you. Do not fear or be discouraged.Deuteronomy 31:8
But now, thus says ADONAI—the One who created you, O Jacob, the One who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are Mine.”Isaiah 43:1
ADONAI is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer. My God is my rock, in Him I take refuge, my shield, my horn of salvation, my stronghold.Psalm 18:3
Now we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.Romans 8:28
The situation in which you find yourself may seem the same. Like Jacob, your Esau, with four hundred men, may be just around the corner and your heart and brain may be doing gyrations motivated by fear trying to figure a way out of the situation. Trust in the Word that is near, believe that it is HaShem’s desire to see you through the situation to the best outcome possible. Most of all, remember that fear is the antithesis to love, and we are told that “perfect love drives out fear,” (1 John 4:18).
Life and occasionally life choices ensure that fearful situations will continually come and go. We need to keep our hearts and minds focused on the Word of God, and on our relationship with Him, knowing that whatever comes He will be there with us, seeing us through to fulfill His Word in our lives.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.
This week’s Haftarah reading is from Obadiah 1:1-21 and the reading from the Apostolic Writings is Matthew 8:23-27.