In this parasha, Yaakov’s long, anticipated reunion with his brother Esav unfolds. Building suspense makes it one of the most dramatic and tense narratives in Sefer Bereshit.
Yaakov’s preparation for the event was two-fold. On one level, a physical one, the patriarch readied his family and property for potential hostilities should Esav’s forces attack. A second additional tack employed by Yaakov took into account mental and emotional preparedness.
After Yaakov’s messengers return to the camp and inform him that Esav rapidly approaches, the Torah records Yaakov’s reaction. “Yaakov feared greatly and was much agitated.” The patriarch harbored no delusions as to what his mercurial-tempered brother was capable of perpetrating against Yaakov’s defenseless wives and young children. Planning for a worse-case scenario, Yaakov mulled options but still an emerging picture was not a pretty one.
And yet, students need to take a step back in order to better understand the patriarch’s ‘gut reaction.’ Was fear and anxiety appropriate considering that heaven uttered promises of protection (ladder prophecy)? Even subsequent to that message were more recent ones. Hadn’t Hashem’s angel bid Yaakov to leave Lavan and return to Canaan (parashat Vayetze)? And hadn’t malachim appeared to him after Lavan departed and brought additional assurances of divine deliverance?
In fact the question boils down to this. Is faith compatible with fear? If Yaakov believed in those prophetic promises of security and well-being, what is meant by his inner turmoil described in the verse?
Here is the thing. Supposing that the patriarchs lacked faith is ludicrous, and broadly misses the point. Hashem’s favorable promises (Yaakov’s security and success) are unalterable. Still, impending armed conflict assumes a different and dangerous dynamic, especially for its commander. Naturally and expectedly, Yaakov experienced a battlefield’s rush, danger, confusion, and fear. If we could freeze that early frame (call it Frame One) of initial concern, we would place our verse’s subtitle: “Yaakov feared greatly and was much agitated.” Only a fool takes to a battlefield and feels no anxiety.
Yaakov, a man of faith, however quickly moved past that first frame. Trust in Hashem quickly kicked in and galvanized him (call it Frame Two). Recalling heaven’s promises, the patriarch drew profound inspiration and strength. ‘And he slept there that night.’ This verse signals a transition between Frame One and Frame Two. Yaakov’s instinctive and human fear gave way to pious repose and he was able to sleep peacefully, knowing that Hashem would ultimately grant him safe passage to reunite with his father Yitzchak in Hebron.