Fear of the Unknown

In the beginning of Parashat Vayishlach, Jacob learns that his estranged brother, Esau, is approaching him with 400 soldiers. How does Jacob react to this news? The Torah tells us, “Jacob was greatly frightened and distressed” (Genesis 42:8). Rashi explains that Jacob was frightened because he thought that Esau may kill him. The last time that Jacob saw his brother, they were far from being on the best of terms. Esau vowed to kill him. Now, Esau is approaching with an army and therefore Jacob assumes that the two may do battle and that he could die as a result.  That’s good reason to be scared!

The Bechor Shor presents a challenge to this interpretation of Rashi. God has already promised Jacob that He would protect him. If Jacob is a true believer in God, which we know he is, then why would he fear dying at the hands of his brother if God has already assured him that he would survive? The Bechor Shor provides two answers.

First the Bechor Shor suggests that Jacob was not scared for his own life, since he did in fact possess the guarantee of divine protection. Rather Jacob was fearful that his wives or children would be harmed. God never promised that no harm would come to them. His fear was that of a loving father and husband worried about that which could happen to his own family.

The Bechor Shor then suggests a second answer which he believes is the better option of the two. This answer is based on the Gemara in Berachot 4a:

“Rabbi Yaakov bar Idi noted a contradiction between two verses. It is written, “Behold, I am with you and will safeguard you wherever you go,” (Genesis 28:15), but it is also written “And Jacob was greatly frightened and distressed” (Genesis 32:8). The resolution of this contradiction is that Jacob was scared because he thought that perhaps he sinned and therefore no longer merited God’s protection.”

Jacob thought that perhaps he lost the divine protection due to his own sin and shortcomings. Despite all that he had accomplished in life, and all that God had thus far given him, it was not beyond him to think that he could be removed from his pedestal (see the Bechor Shor on Genesis 41:45 for a similar idea with regards to Joseph).

What sin could Jacob have committed?  Bereishit Rabbah 76:2 suggests that it was his inability to perform the mitzvah of Kibud Av Va’Em, honoring one’s parents, that haunted him.

The Bechor Shor posits that God only promises good to do gooders, and likewise bestows bad on evil doers who do not leave their evil ways.  So if Jacob was a sinner, then he would no longer merit the divine promises that he had received. Jacob knew this and was therefore fearful.  It’s amazing that Jacob, despite the great levels of prophecy and spiritual perfection he had achieved, was worried that maybe he was a sinner. He did not feel overly confident in what he had achieved.

But let’s go back to the original verse for a moment, as there is a subtly that the Bechor Shor highlights. Jacob was not only frightened, he was also distressed, as stated in the verse. What does it mean that Jacob was distressed? Rashi writes that whereas the fear was with regards to Jacob himself being killed, the distress was with regards to Jacob’s wives and children being killed. However as previously noted, the Bechor Shor sees both of these concerns subsumed under the fear, not distress, that Jacob felt. For the Bechor Shor, the distress was something else entirely.

Jacob was distressed because he didn’t know what was going to happen. Would Esau act like a friend or a foe? Would Jacob’s camp be attacked, or would they emerge whole?  Jacob didn’t know what would happen, and that deeply troubled him.

Sometimes living in doubt is harder and more troubling than living even with bad news. Sometimes a person waiting for a diagnosis tosses and turns in his sleep more so than a person who has actually received a bad diagnosis. This, suggests the Bechor Shor, is the nature of the distress that was felt by Jacob.

Jacob’s distress was born out of a place of doubt, as was his fear. Jacob did not know for sure that he was a sinner. Nor did he know for sure that he was a saint. He was in doubt about that as well (shema yigrom hachet, in Hebrew).  For Jacob, it was the fear of the unknown that troubled him the most.

Perhaps this episode with Jacob provides the biblical origins for the idea “Ein simcha Kehahatrat hasefeikot, there is no happiness like the resolution of doubt.”