Why did Yaakov Avinu, whose lofty levels of emunah and bitachon are beyond our comprehension, grow fearful and distressed when he heard that his brother Esav was coming toward him with 400 men? What is especially perplexing is that the Ribbono shel Olam had specifically promised him, “Behold, I am with you and will guard you wherever you go.” So what did he possibly have to worry about?
The Gemara (Brachos 4a) raises this question and replies that Yaakov Avinu was frightened despite the assurance he had received from Hashem, for he worried that a sin might cause him to lose this protection.
But at the moment he heard of the threat posed by Esav, Yaakov Avinu was surrounded by angels, some of whom he sent as messengers to his brother. It seems unlikely that these angels would have continued to surround Yaakov if he had fallen from his spiritual level, and therefore, the presence of these angels would seem to bear testament that Yaakov had not sinned — and that Hashem’s promise still applied.
One explanation is that he wasn’t worried about a sin he might have committed in the past, between the time of Hashem’s promise him and this crisis with Esav. It was the future he was frightened about.
There were two somewhat contradictory types of danger posed by Esav. On one hand, there was the physical menace, Esav’s desire to annihilate Yaakov and his family by the sword. Then there was the even greater danger that Esav, the exemplar of evil, might have decided to act with friendship and brotherhood toward Yaakov Avinu. Were Esav to succeed in establishing a close bond with his brother, it would have a devastating effect on Yaakov Avinu’s spiritual level.
If it had only been the sword of Esav coming toward him, Yaakov Avinu would not have feared. It was the spiritual threat that distressed him, on two accounts.
First, for Yaakov Avinu it would have been preferable to be killed than to face a spiritual death in the World to Come after having been influenced by the likes of Esav.
Second, even if Yaakov Avinu were able to strengthen himself enough to deflect the powers of impurity represented by Esav, simply associating himself with Esav would have meant that the angels who were protecting him would depart. In that case, he would face the additional physical danger posed by his brother. (Adapted from a teaching of the Shem MiShmuel)
Hagaon Harav Yehudah Assad, zt”l, states that Yaakov Avinu was confident that Hashem would be with him and protect him, as promised. However, he was uncertain whether this would unfold through some hishtadlus on his part or in a miraculous manner that would not require any action on his part. Rashi explains that he became frightened “lest he be killed,” and it distressed him “were he to kill others.”
Yaakov felt that if hishtadlus were in order, he was required to attempt to appease Esav and, as a last resort, take up arms and go to war. Failure to do the requisite hishtadlus could mean that he would lose the Divine protection he had been promised, and he became frightened about this “lest he be killed.”
At the same time, he considered the possibility that the promised protection would come about in a miraculous manner that did not call for any military action. In that case, by going to war he would be shedding blood unnecessarily, so it distressed him “were he to kill others.”
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Hagaon Harav Chaim Shmulevitz, zt”l, teaches us yet another facet of this crucial topic. He quotes the Midrash, which comments on the fear and distress that Yaakov Avinu felt at the time with a passuk in Mishlei (26:170): “[Like one] who seizes a dog’s ears, [so is] one who grows wrathful over a dispute that is not his.”
The Ribbono shel Olam said to Yaakov Avinu, “[Esav] was going his way, and you sent to him saying, ‘So says your servant Yaakov.’” According to Chazal, each of Esav’s 400 men actually led a battalion of 400 men. Therefore, Yaakov Avinu was facing a massive army of 160,000 men.
Yet even such an obvious, glaring danger is really no danger at all. The proper approach is to realize that Esav is simply “going his way.” For Yaakov this was equivalent to “a dispute that is not his” — for it is solely the Ribbono shel Olam who decides where His creatures will go, and Esav and his huge army were powerless to harm Yaakov.
It was Yaakov Avinu’s fear of Esav that “seized the ears of the dog,” giving Esav the strength to pose a real threat. It was the unwarranted fear that created the danger.
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May the Ribbono shel Olam protect us from all danger and harm, both spiritual and physical, and grant us the wisdom to fear Him alone.