Parashah (portion) Vayishlach – Being Present to Our Fear
Genesis 32:4 – 36:43
In the previous Torah portion we read about Jacob’s vision of the ladder that came to him in a dream. At the end of that vision God appears to him to say: “And here I am, with you. I will guard you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this soil.” (Gen 28:15) Toward the end of that portion spanning over 20 years of Jacob’s life, God appears to him again and orders him back home, saying: “Return to the land of your ancestors, to your birthplace, and I will be with you.” (Gen 31:2) In both cases one can’t help but notice that God insists on telling Jacob that He will stand as his protector; that He will be with him, on his side. Why is God so insistent on this point? This week’s Torah portion might shed some light:
Jacob now sent angels ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, in the country-side of Edom… When the angels came back to Jacob, they said, “We went to your brother Esau, and he, too-accompanied by four hundred men-is marching to meet you.” Jacob was terrified. [Gen. 32:4-8]
God insisted on this point because He knew that Jacob needed to be reassured, to know that He would stand as his shield when the time came to meet his brother Esau. But even with both Divine affirmations, Jacob is still terrified. Wouldn’t a person of faith be able to face the upcoming confrontation with equanimity and composure? Wouldn’t an enlightened person have transcended his/her fear? Isn’t Jacob displaying a lack of faith, denying God’s power, disregarding God’s promise through his irrational behavior?
Perhaps this is what this Torah portion is aiming to tell us about fear. Fear operates at such a primal level of our psyche that, as long as we are in a body, we are bound to experience it. Fear isn’t, at its core, negative. It is a means to our survival, a reflex of self-preservation. It is irrational because it is pre-rational. If the car in front of you stops abruptly, now is not the time to reason away your next move. Fear takes over and reacts in a split second, before any thought has time to make itself known. As in Jacob’s case, enlightenment will probably not bring about the blissful, serene, equanimous life you might hope for. Awakening is probably not a general anesthetic that dulls one’s life into an everlastingly undisturbed peaceful silence. I suspect that the opposite might be true. Being awake one sees more, feels more, is more. In letting go of the stories of the mind and being radically present to each moment one can’t help it but be more alive to all the feelings, the sensations, the emotions that are part of one’s experience without collapsing into any of them. And so when fear arose within Jacob, he remained fully present to it, fully connected to its rising energies, without letting his ego step in, without contracting. He simply was the fear he felt, aware of the conditioning at the source of his experience.
From that place, I read a comment by Rashi (11th century French rabbi) who writes: “Jacob was terrified and distressed. Terrified lest he be killed; distressed were he to kill others.” On one hand, Jacob lets the energies of his conditioned pre-rational fear flow fully through his being; and, on the other hand, from a more enlightened place, he mourns the eventuality of having to kill in self-defense. I find this commentary most powerful. Rashi acknowledges the conditioned nature of our existence and, at the same time, the human potential for transcendence in care and compassion. May we, too, learn to live like Jacob, by honoring the limitations of our human condition, yet striving to remember the One Life manifesting in all lives, the One Being expressing through all beings.