Was Yaakov Afraid of Esav?

Vayira Yaakov me’od vayeitzer lo (Bereishis 32:8)

When Yaakov heard that Esav was coming toward him with 400 men, he became very frightened and distressed. Yet, there is no further mention of his fear or its effects on him.

He went alone in the middle of the night to retrieve his forgotten flasks without any hesitation (Rashi 32:25). Harav Shimon Schwab, zt”l, explains that although Yaakov was initially afraid, after he davened and beseeched Hashem to protect him from Esav (32:12), his trepidation went away. This teaches us that no matter how grim the circumstances a person finds himself in, if he davens sincerely, he can cast aside his anxiety.

As an illustration of this theme, Rabbeinu Bachya points out that Yaakov instructed his messengers to tell Esav (32:6), “I have oxen and donkeys, flocks, and servants.” Normally, when listing different animals, flocks of sheep and goats are mentioned first, such as in Parashas Vayeitzei, where the Torah records (30:43) that Yaakov had many sheep, servants, camels, and donkeys. Why in this case did Yaakov want his representatives to place his flocks in the middle of the list of his possessions?

Rabbeinu Bachya explains that Yaakov was scared to highlight his flocks because he had used them as part of his plan to take away Yitzchok’s blessings from Esav (27:9), and he did not want to reminding him of that episode.

However, when Yaakov actually sent his tribute to Esav, he placed the goats first (32:15). He was only afraid until he davened. Once he poured out his heart to Hashem, he was confident in the power of his prayers and placed the goats up front to intimidate Esav and remind him that if he intended to fight, Yaakov had already used goats to prevail over him once before.

Harav Mordechai Druk adds that this also explains why Yaakov was able to sleep the night before his fateful encounter with Esav (32:14). Often, the night before an important event, people find it difficult to fall asleep and remain asleep, and all the more so if they feel that their lives are in danger. Yet even though Parashas Vayishlach begins with Yaakov frightened that he and his family might be killed, after he davened and placed his trust in Hashem to watch over them, he was no longer scared, as evidenced by his ability to sleep soundly the night before his fateful meeting with Esav.

Along these lines, the Mishnah (Brachos 54a) rules that a person who sees a place where a miracle occurred for the Jewish people must recite a brachah. One of the examples given by the Gemara is someone who sees the stone on which Moshe sat during the battle against Amalek (Shemos 17:12). Rav Druk points out that this is difficult to understand, as the miracle took place on the battlefield below where the Jewish soldiers defeated the Amalekites, not on the rock where Moshe was sitting.

Rav Druk explains that while Moshe was sitting on the rock, the Torah says that he was immersed in prayer. Chazal understood that it was Moshe’s hands raised in supplication that enabled the miraculous victory, not the military prowess of the soldiers on the battlefield. When we find ourselves in dire straits and in need of a yeshuah, it is important to remember that redemption comes when we tearfully say Tehillim and cry out in Shemoneh Esrei, not through our physical hishtadlus. This recognition is what allows prayer to transform fear into optimism, for the righteous understand that after they have davened properly, they can trust that success is just around the corner.

Harav Yisroel Reisman adds that this insight also resolves another difficulty with the narrative in Parashas Vayishlach. Just before Yaakov’s climactic meeting with Esav, he arranged his wives and their children, placing the maidservants and their sons first, followed by Leah and her children, and Rochel and Yosef in the rear (Bereishis 33:6-7). This seems to contradict Yaakov’s initial strategy, in which he divided his family into two camps and placed a distance of one day’s travel between them so that at least some of them would survive (32:8-9). Why were all his wives and children present when he encountered Esav, and why did he abandon his original plan? In the interim, Yaakov had davened and was no longer afraid of Esav, so there was no more need to split up the family and they proceeded together as one.

Q: There are 24 people in Tanach whose names are also the names of animals, five of whom are mentioned in Parashas Vayishlach. How many of them can you identify

2) There are two couples in the Torah of which the husband’s name and the wife’s name begin with the same letter, and Rashi mentions a third with this feature. One of these three couples is found in Parashas Vayishlach. How many of them can you identify?

A: 1) In Parashas Vayishlach, we find Rochel (33:1 — sheep), Chamor (33:19 — donkey), Devorah (35:8 — bee), Aya (36:24 — buzzard), and Dishon (36:25 — antelope). Elsewhere in the Torah, we find Tachash (Bereishis 22:24 — an extinct multicolored animal), Becher (ibid., 46:21 — young camel), Tzipporah (Shemos 2:21 — female bird), Tzippor (Bamidbar 22:2 — male bird), and Chaglah (ibid., 26:33 — partridge).

In Tanach, we also have Devorah (Shoftim 4:4 — bee), Yael (ibid., 4:17 — ibex), Orev (ibid., 7:25 — raven), Ze’ev (ibid. — wolf), Tolah (ibid., 10:1 — worm), Nachash (Shmuel I, 11:1 — snake), Layish (ibid., 25:44 — lion), Eglah (Shmuel II, 3:5 — heifer), Aya (ibid., 3:7 — buzzard), Tzivia (Melachim II, 12:2 — deer), Shafan (ibid., 22:3 — rabbit), Chulda (ibid., 22:14 — weasel), and Yonah (Yonah 1:1 — dove).

2) In Parashas Vayishlach, Esav married Adah (Bereishis 36:2). In Parashas Va’eira (Shemos 6:23), Aharon wedded Elisheva, and Rashi (Bereishis 4:22) writes that Noach married Naamah.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.