Vayishlach: Fear of Knowing

Vayishlach: Fear of Knowing

There is nothing to fear but ourselves. Ernest Becker cites Abraham Maslow in “The Denial of Death” about “Freud’s greatest discovery”: “the great cause of much psychological illness is the fear of knowledge of oneself – of one’s emotions, impulses, memories, capacities, potentialities, of one’s destiny….”

In this week’s parshah, when Jacob learns that his brother Esau is prepared to meet him with 400 men, the Torah tells us, “Jacob was greatly frightened; in his anxiety he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps.”

Maybe Rashi anticipated a listener’s question about Jacob’s character when he cites a midrash (Bereishit Rabba 76:2) that not only did Jacob fear being killed upon meeting Esau, Jacob was also afraid that he might kill someone. We can understand Jacob wondering if his brother Esau, who had sworn to kill him, would make good on the threat he made at the time Jacob engineered Esau’s demotion from blessed heir to spurned son. But how well did Jacob know himself? If his fear of what he might do was equal to his fear of what Esau may do, surely Jacob had grown from the weasel he once was to the prince he was becoming. Did Jacob think himself vulnerable to committing greater offenses because he had tasted the fruits of deception and theft?

Vayishlach opens with Jacob sending a message to his estranged brother, Esau. Jacob identifies himself by what he’s been doing for 20 years as “garti,” translated as “I lived.”

Jacob wants Esau to see him as a simple sojourner and that he had not abused or even used the powers he had schemed for. Jacob was claiming to be a humbler man since his headier days in their parents’ camp. Rashi further interprets “garti” to mean, “it’s not worth hating me because of the blessing with which your father blessed me.” Does Jacob mean to devalue their father’s blessing so as to dissuade his brother from taking revenge for having been deceived 20 years before?

Was Jacob speaking truthfully, or was fear driving his response? It seems that the only way to find out the identity of the real Jacob was to shake it out of him. Jacob wrestles with a man whom Rashi identifies as Esau’s guardian angel. If it was so, then Esau’s attack that Jacob feared had happened – without armies clashing, without innocents harmed or killed, and it happened when Jacob was by himself.

After the struggle, Jacob was wounded but no longer afraid. Rebekah – and maybe Isaac – choreographed Jacob’s early life to assure him his princely due. Jacob realized that the nobility of his career pursuits would not protect him from the consequences of his earlier deeds. It was not until Jacob took responsibility for himself, rather than depend on what others had planned for him, that he no longer lived in fear.

In light of what has been judged as the worst economic downturn since the Depression, Jacob’s fear resonates with many of us. Like Jacob, we fear what is in front of us and we fear that our vulnerability may turn to tragedy. We should not only fear what will happen to us, but we also should fear what we may do to each other. (I read recently that subprime mortgages are on the rise again.) Like Jacob, we believed we were entitled to prosperity without having to wrestle with the consequences of our behaviors. While many celebrated their wealth as a given, others who had little financial foundation were lulled into believing they too were deserving of credit. Financial institutions were willing to give credit where credit was not due and we now live with the pain. Few have escaped, and all will limp.

Jacob’s anxiety abated only after he wrestled, got hurt, and moved on – with a limp. Thinking about if Jacob had been wiser and his character stronger is not the approach to an answer for us. We will walk upright again only if we do not forget why we limped.

Shabbat Shalom.