The melamed who taught Harav Chaim Brisker in his youth was known as Reb Dovid der blinder (“the blind one”). He wasn’t actually blind; he acquired this title because he was so careful never to look outside of his daled amos (four cubits).
At the time, the Russian government was engaged in the brutal practice of kidnapping young Jewish children to serve 25 years in the czar’s army.
These kidnappings frequently occurred at the beginning of winter, and so, each year for many weeks, Jewish children would hide out in cellars and other places.
Reb Dovid, who was famed for his righteousness and geonus, determined that the Jewish children should not be deprived of learning during those trying times, would hide along with them and teach them.
On one occasion, as Reb Dovid was engrossed in teaching his students, a policeman entered the cellar, grabbed one of the students and began to drag him out. Reb Dovid rose from his place, approached the officer and slapped him across the face.
This incident caused a tremendous furor; to strike an officer while he was executing his duties was akin to a revolt against the czar himself.
With great difficulty, the Jews were able to appease the police and resolve the matter.
Harav Chaim’s father, the Beis Halevi, later asked Reb Dovid how he had dared to hit a police officer. Reb Dovid responded simply. “Believe me, Rebbi,” he said, “I certainly did not intend to do it. We were in middle of learning a sevarah of Tosafos, and he came and interrupted us … in the middle of a sevarah of Tosafos!”
Why did Yaakov Avinu fear Esav so?
Chazal (Bereishis Rabbah 65:16) on the passuk, “the voice is Yaakov’s voice, but the hands are Esav’s hands,” teach us that when the “voice of Yaakov” is heard in batei knesses and batei medrash, the “hands of Esav” have no power over it.
If this applies to the “voice of Yaakov,” how much more so when we are referring to Yaakov himself? What was Yaakov Avinu afraid of? Certainly his Torah learning would protect him!
The Gemara (Brachos 4a) asks a similar question. It poses an apparent contradiction: On the one hand it is written, that the Ribbono shel Olam promised Yaakov Avinu, “Behold I am with you and will guard you wherever you go.” On the other hand, it is written that when Yaakov Avinu learned that Esav was coming toward him with 400 men, “Yaakov became very frightened and it distressed him.” The Gemara replies that Yaakov Avinu was frightened despite the assurance he had received from Hashem, for he worried, “shema yigrom hacheit — lest a sin cause me to lose this protection.”
What sin was Yaakov afraid of?
We are taught (Ibid. 60a) that Rabi Yishmael saw that a disciple was fearful.
“You are a sinner!” Rabi Yishmael told him, as it says (Yeshayahu 33:14), “Sinners were afraid in Tzion.”
“But it is also written (Mishlei 28:14), “Praiseworthy is the man who is always fearful.” The disciple replied.
“That is referring to divrei Torah,” Rabi Yishmael answered. Rashi explains this to mean that an individual should always be fearful that he will forget the Torah he has learned, for this fear will cause him to continuously review it.
In Parashas Eikev, the Torah warns us, “Take care, lest you eat and be satisfied, and you build good houses and settle; and your cattle and flocks increase, and you increase silver and gold for yourself … and your heart will become haughty and you will forget Hashem …”
An abundance of material possession puts an individual at great risk of forgetting Hashem and His Torah.
Yaakov Avinu had endured the hardship of extreme poverty; now he has been blessed with large numbers of livestock and other valuable possessions. He had crossed the river with only a stick; now he was returning with much material wealth.
Yaakov feared that this may have adversely affected his relationship with Hashem and with his knowledge of Torah.
Yaakov Avinu pleaded with Hashem to “save me from my brother, the hands of Esav,” for he worried about whether the “voice of
Yaakov” was at that moment powerful enough to counter the “hands of Esav.”
“For I fear him ‘lest’ he come and strike me” — Yaakov Avinu feared the “lest you eat and be satisfied,” of Parashas Eikev, that this will “come and strike him.” (Adapted from a teaching of the Divrei Yisrael.)
We have no inkling of any aspect of the greatness of the Avos, and certainly not of the Torah of a Yaakov Avinu. However, this teaching reminds us how mindful we have to be to ensure that at all times — whether during periods of hardship or of comfort — the voice of Yaakov remains supreme, as the ultimate antidote to the danger posed by Esav.