Fear can be a powerful motivator. It can cause us to behave in ways we might not otherwise. It can move us forward or keep us stuck where we are. The emotion of fear is a healthy response to a dangerous situation, but how we choose to act on our fear or fears can make all the difference in our lives.
Jacob is afraid as he returns home. Twenty years earlier, his brother had threatened his life and both his parents agreed that he should go to visit his mother's family. When he left he was a young man just starting to mature, when he returns he comes with wives and children, slaves and animals. He returns as an adult ready to claim his place in his family. And yet, he is still afraid. He doesn't know if or how these past twenty years have changed his brother. He doesn't know if his life is still in danger.
When Jacob gets near his home, Esau also arrives surrounded by armed men, and the image was probably terrifying. But when he comes close enough, Esau embraces his brother, welcoming him home and offering to accompany him to an appropriate plot of land on which to settle. But Jacob seems not quite ready for that and he sends Esau ahead without him. Jacob then takes the very long way back and settles in a few other places before eventually putting down real stakes near Esau. It seems that there might still have been a question for Jacob about his safety with Esau, whether Esau was really a friend or foe.
B'reishit Rabbah 84:5 asks why, after everything, would Jacob have decided to dwell near to Esau. "R. Hunia said: Jacob's decision to dwell in a land near Esau's may be understood by the parable of a man who, while on a journey, saw a pack of dogs and was seized with fear of them. What did he do? He sat down among them. So also, when our father Jacob saw Esau and his chiefs, he too, though afraid of them, settled down among them" (Sefer Ha-Aggadah).1 The midrash acknowledges Jacob's fear, and commends his act of facing his fear and moving towards it rather than away. Had the man in the midrash run from the pack of dogs they would have chased him and done him harm, but by sitting among them he shows them he is not afraid and instead he is welcomed in. So too, Jacob is safe because he chooses to live near his brother and face him.
The midrash continues, "R. Levi said: What Jacob did may be illustrated by the parable of a blacksmith whose forge opened onto the middle of the street, while the workshop of his son, a goldsmith, opened opposite him. Once he saw many, many bundles of thorns being brought into the city. Upset, he exclaimed, 'Alas for the town. See what is coming into it!' A clever man who was there called him: 'Are you afraid of these? One spark from your forge and one spark from your son's, and all the thorns will go up in flames.' So, too, when our father Jacob saw Esau and his chiefs, he was afraid. The Holy One said to him: Are you afraid of these? One spark from you and one spark from your son, and you will consume them, all of them. Thus it is written, 'The house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, with Esau's house like straw to be kindled and consumed' (Obadiah 1:18)." (ibid.)
This part of the midrash, I believe, shows the Rabbis' fear. Esau is believed to be the forefather of the Roman Empire, and God's message here that Jacob and his son Joseph might together burn down Esau's house was one that encouraged the Rabbis, that they and their children might together end Rome's rule over Jerusalem.
But I would like to read this second part of the midrash differently. Rather than fan the flame of our fears and rally around the idea of burning down our enemy's house, perhaps we could read the blacksmith as Esau and the goldsmith as Jacob. They settle near each other and perhaps we can imagine them as living across the street from each other. They may interact with each other or not, but they continue peacefully enough. If some threat were to come, some "bundle of thorns," and they were able to combine their strengths, there would be nothing that could get in their way. Esau is full of strength and power, Jacob is full of cunning and understanding. What a superpower they might combine to be.
Toward the end of our portion we read that together the wealth of Jacob and Esau is too abundant for them to continue living next to each other, so Esau moves to the hill country of Seir (Genesis 36:6?8). There is no mention of threats between them or arguments or disagreements. The Torah makes no mention of any difficulty in their relationship from the moment of their reconciliation onward. It would seem that by conquering his fear of his brother, Jacob is able to return home and live a peaceful and abundant life side-by-side with the one he had feared. It was fear that made him run, it was fear that made him return so slowly, but ultimately it was the facing of that fear that allowed him to return home and finally settle.
Our fears turn humans into monsters and when we face those fears monsters are returned to human proportions. Jacob is admirable for doing just that. He faced what had been so terrifying for him. 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.
- Sefer Ha-Aggadah, edited by Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, translated by William G. Braude (New York: Schocken Books, 1992) p. 50
Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker joyfully serves as the rabbi for Congregation Kol Ami in Vancouver, Washington.