Fear Is the Opposite of Love

Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4−36:43

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar

And thou, do not fear, O My servant Jacob; neither be dismayed, O Israel; for, lo, I will save you from afar, and your seed from the land of their captivity; and Jacob shall return and sit in quiet and ease, and none shall make him afraid (Jeremiah 30:10).

The twin brothers Jacob and Esau live a life of rivalry, intrigue, and deceit. Jacob lies to his father Isaac as he lay dying, steals his brother's blessing, and then flees into the wilderness. Years pass and he gets word that his brother is nearby. Jacob is afraid. He tries to placate Esau by sending him gifts. Then, the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, "We came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him" (Genesis 32:7). Jacob understands that his brother is approaching with a small army. And then: Jacob was afraid (vayera) , very fearful (vayetzer) , he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps (Genesis 32:7-8).

Jacob is a fearful man. Twice the verse uses the word fear -- vayera and then vayetzer. The first word for fear is also the word for awe. As we gaze upon the mystery of the heavens, the boundary between awe and fear is ever so slight. We are awe struck by the vast unknown of God, and we are aware of our own smallness. We are afraid of our vulnerability at the same time we are in awe of the grandeur and the blessings that abound.

The second word for fear comes from the root narrow. This kind of fear constricts our very being. We are clenched, terrified. Some rabbis teach that the two words for fear indicate the two fears within Jacob's heart; he is afraid of being killed by his brother and he is also afraid that he may be forced to kill when his brother attacks him (Radak, 13th century biblical commentator and philosopher).

But there is another teaching in rabbinic literature - Jacob is afraid because he believes that he is not "worthy of miraculous salvation" (Malbim, 19th century Hebrew scholar).

Not worthy.

And like Jacob, we hold both types of fear in our hearts. Sometimes we feel the paradox of vayera: awe and fear. The mystery inspires us, we are in awe of the beauty that abounds. I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars that You set in place (Psalm 8:4). But so often the vastness makes us afraid what are we that You have been mindful of us, we are mortal, do You take note of us? (Psalm 8:5) We feel small, unable, incapable, judged. We are so afraid of the ambiguities in life. Afraid because we have so little control over forces both small and large.

And sometimes we feel vayetzer. Constricted. We live with a life perspective of scarcity. Will there ever be enough -- enough love, enough blessing, enough friendship, enough fame and fortune? Will we ever be good enough? Worthy, so that we may be redeemed from what holds us down, holds us back from living our best life. Who among us is not afraid of judgment? Of being small? We walk through the world clenched, anxious, tense.

But we do have a choice. In the spiritual world, the opposite of fear is love. Instead of fearing scarcity, we can hope for abundance. Our liturgy teaches that the universe is a vessel with overflowing love, hope, and beauty -- ahava rabah,. When we live with a perspective of abundance, we have plenty, we live with gratitude for the many blessings in our life. We are worthy.

And yet we struggle. It is not easy to quiet our minds and open our hearts. Living is not easy. Life is often a struggle with unseen forces, a wrestling with people, with circumstances, with inner demons, and with angels. In the darkness we wrestle between worthiness and acceptance, between love and fear.

It is nighttime by the river Jabbok. Darkness is everywhere, upon the land, upon the soul. I wonder if there is a gentle breeze, a wisp of Godly presence before the fight. Maybe the stars shine upon the black sky, maybe not. Maybe the light of the moon illuminates the river water, maybe not. It is quiet, dead quiet, and Jacob is afraid. And suddenly a whirlwind tosses him. He tumbles, twists as he tries to steady himself. Who are you? Who are you that seizes our fear, that grips our clenched heart? What is the name of the one who injures us so? Then off in the distance, light upon the horizon, colorful hues, perhaps as the poet Emily Dickenson once observed, I'll tell you how the Sun rose - A Ribbon at a time. And then, Jacob pleas for a blessing, a blessing that will wipe away his fear: "Let me go, for dawn is breaking." But he answered, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." And the stranger, or maybe it's an angel, answers, "Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you wrestle with beings divine and human. And you have prevailed" (Genesis 32:27-29).

And from that moment we are named. We are not the children of Abraham, nor are we the children of Isaac. We are not even the children of Jacob. We are Israel, struggling to be free of our fears, yearning to live with awe, unclenched, open hearted, in love and blessing.

As I once wrote:

Inside the human heart is fear.
There is also hope.
The two wrestle constantly, like Jacob and his God.
Sometimes one prevails. Sometimes the other.
The struggle is sometimes silent, other times loud.
But it is constant-fear, hope, fear, hope.
Flashes of light and shadow twirling inside us all the time.
It is so much easier when there is love.
When love is in your life
it becomes the context for it all.
Love is the measure of a life well lived,
it is the beacon of possibility.
When you love, the fear is less harsh,
hope a bit stronger.

Amen: Seeking Presence with Prayer, Poetry and Mindfulness Practice, CCAR 2020