Fear is a paradoxical emotion, for it can cause us to behave in a spectrum of ways we might not otherwise. It can motivate us and move us forward or paralyze us and keep us stuck where we are. While often a healthy response to a dangerous situation, unconquered fear can also be a path to internal self-destruction. As Nelson Mandela famously taught, “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” In other words, how we choose to respond to or act on our fear can make all the difference in our lives.
In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob is afraid, as he makes the journey back toward his home. Years earlier, his brother, Esau, had threatened his life there and his mother encouraged him to flee to escape Esau’s rage. When he left, he was a young man struggling with immaturity. But he returns as an adult, a father and a husband and appears ready to claim his place in the family we know as the Jewish people. And yet, Jacob is still afraid, knowing that in order to get home he will have to pass through the territory of Esau. While transformative for himself, how might the past 20 years have changed his brother, Jacob wonders? Might his life still be in danger?
Jacob makes preparations, both externally — sending his family to safety, preparing gifts for Esau — and internally, as we read of his intense spiritual encounter with the angel resulting in his change of name. But then Esau arrives surrounded by armed men. The image was probably terrifying, and Jacob’s tension is palpable in the text. Esau comes close and with cinematic drama wraps his brother in an embrace. Instead of seeking vengeance, Esau welcomes Jacob home and offers to accompany him to an appropriate plot of nearby land on which to settle.
We are living in an extraordinary time; one where it seems fear has the potential to either drive us toward one another or away from our fellow human beings. But our portion reminds us that fear is merely a state of mind and when conquered can alter our perceptions of others for the good. Fears turn humans into monsters, and when we face those fears, monsters are returned to human proportions. Jacob is to be admired for facing what had been so terrifying for him. Yet, Esau also did what was hard; he welcomed his brother and forgave him for stealing something as dear as a father’s blessing. An act of forgiveness that powerful may have been equally terrifying. These two acts of bravery allow a family to reunite and brothers to dwell together in peace. May we draw strength and courage from their example and face our own fears with similar determination.
Rabbi Dena Shaffer is exeuctive director of 4Front at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore.