Yaakov’s Fear of Esav
In this week’s Torah portion Yaakov is told that his brother Esav is coming to meet him with four hundred armed men. Yaakov’s reaction is “…he became very frightened and it distressed him.” Abarbanel finds Yaakov’s fear very puzzling. First of all, G-d has already assured Yaakov that he would always have Divine protection: “Behold, I am with you, I will guard you wherever you go.” Similarly, just prior to this point in time, as he was preparing to leave his father-in-law Lavan, G-d told him, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your native land and I will be with you.” Secondly, once Yaakov’s fear became apparent, why doesn’t G-d reassure him of His protection, as He does later on? At that point, when Yaakov is hesitant to bring his family to Egypt, G-d reassures him by telling him, “Don’t be afraid to descend to Egypt…I will descend with you.”
Abarbanel answers as follows: In reality, Yaakov’s fear had nothing to do with any lack of trust in G-d. As such, he did not require any further reassurance. Man is a combination of a physical entity and a rational/spiritual entity. Yaakov’s physical side had a genuine fear of death. He can be compared to a warrior going into battle. A true hero goes into battle knowing that death is possible. But a sense of a higher responsibility and a higher virtue enables him to overcome that fear. One who goes into battle with no sense of danger is not a true hero, as his rational/spiritual side is not being challenged. Yaakov’s physical side was genuinely and viscerally afraid of death at the hands of his brother. But his rational/spiritual side predominated and enabled him to overcome that fear and meet Esav directly. The profound depth of his trust in G-d is demonstrated by the fact that he could have employed other, safer means to escape Esav. He could have fled or sought refuge in a fortified city, while sending word to his father Yitzchak to intercede on his behalf. Yaakov did not require any further reassurance, as his strategy was a clear demonstration of his trust in the veracity of G-d’s earlier promises.
This conflict between our two opposing natures is a pattern that is constantly repeated in our daily lives. However, an individual who, for example, refrains from a forbidden intimate relationship or from a forbidden food because he finds the person unattractive or the food disgusting is not demonstrating his trust or the strength of his rational/spiritual nature. Only when our physical fears and desires pull us can we demonstrate the spiritual strength personified in Yaakov.