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Vayishlach and Conquering Fears

The Hasidic rabbi, Nachman of Bratslav, used to say: “The whole world is a narrow bridge. The essence is to be unafraid.”

And yet we read of our patriarch: “And Jacob was greatly frightened.” (Genesis 32:8)

Fear is reasonable. It is to be expected. There is plenty about which to be frightened. There are our fears of terrorism and war, of sickness and disease, of the weather and its calamities. (Our hearts are joined in sorrow for those in the Philippines suffering from Typhoon Haiyan.) For most these fears give us pause. They offer us hesitation. Before setting out, we ask, “Is it worth the risk?” Most of the time we are able to forge ahead, mustering the necessary courage to overcome our fears. For others these fears become incapacitating. These people never venture far outside of their comfort zone. They stay close to home for fear of dangers, both real and imagined.

We learn that even Jacob was afraid.

When facing challenges, when staring at crisis, when looking at struggle fear is a natural feeling. When we know there might be disappointment, when we expect there might be heartache, when we foresee there might even be pain, fear is reasonable. Still we should not allow these fears to lead us to inaction.

In order to succeed we must often overcome fear. In order to fashion something new for ourselves, for our family, for our community we must take risks.

Why was Jacob afraid? For years he had lived on the run. After stealing the birthright from his brother Esau, he fled to his uncle’s home. There he was married (twice) and built a family. We understand why he ran. His brother Esau threatened to kill him! Now, after many years, he is about to see his brother again. Will his brother forgive him? Will they make amends? Jacob is greatly frightened.

The evening before their meeting he wrestles with a mysterious being. He emerges from the encounter limping, but with a new name. He is now called, “Yisrael—Israel.” He becomes the “God wrestler.” He crosses the Jabbok, a river cut through a meandering wadi in the Judean desert. Crossing the river in the middle of the night is perilous. Perhaps this is preparation for the upcoming challenge. “If I can cross the river, then I can face my brother. If I can wrestle with God, then I can face anything.” He is ready to face his past. He is prepared to meet his brother.

Jacob sees his brother approaching in the distance. “And Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 32:4) Had Jacob not crossed the river he never would have made amends with his brother. The embrace would have remained a dream and not a reality.

These days the weather is indeed frightening. It is not in our hands. It is beyond our control. And so we should pause before setting out to face a challenge. But we should not turn away. We must plunge head first into the struggle.

It would be irresponsible to head out to sea in a hurricane. Then again we cannot wait for calm seas.

The essence is to be unafraid. Struggle is how we are named.