As he flees his brother Esav, God promises Yaakov that he would return safely to Canaan (Genesis 28:15). Then why in this week’s Parsha, Vayishlach, is Yaakov afraid? Doesn’t Yaakov’s fear reflect a lack of belief in God?
The Abrabanel suggests that fear is a not sign of weakness, but rather a part of the human dimension, a feeling that is neither right nor wrong. A person who is afraid should not be judged harshly, for whom among us has never been afraid? The real question is what do we do when we’re afraid? Do we become immobilized, unable to go forward, or do we gather strength in an attempt to meet the challenges that lie ahead? Feelings may be involuntary but actions can be controlled. Yaakov’s greatness was his preparedness to act contrary to his natural feelings; to come back to Canaan even though it meant confronting Esav.
Rav Nahman of Bratslav once said, “the whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the main thing is not to be afraid at all.” Yaakov’s actions teach us that when we are afraid, it doesn’t mean we’re lacking in faith or conviction. Rather, it means that we have an opportunity to gather our strength and conquer our fears by confronting them. We won’t act afraid, because we won’t be afraid to act.