080 Torah Portion of the Week – Vayishlach – Should We be Afraid? – Healthy Fear and Personal Growth – A Powerful Parable about Playing Dice – A Great Story about Rav Shach and Peace in Your Home – Laziness After Marriage
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080 The Torah Podcast – Should We Be Afraid? – Healthy Fear and Personal Growth
Torah Portion of the Week – Vayishlach
This week, we’re going to talk about fear, why we get afraid, when we should be afraid, and what to do when we’re afraid. Towards the beginning of the Parsha it says like this, “The angels returned to Yaakov saying, ‘We came to your brother, to Esav, moreover he is heading towards you. And 400 men are with him,’ and Yaakov became very frightened and it distressed him. So, he divided the people with him and the flocks, and the cattle, and the camels, into two camps. He said, ‘If Esav comes to one camp and strikes it, then the remaining camp will be a refuge.’ The Yaakov said, ‘God of my father Avraham, and God of my father Yitzhak, Hashem who said to me, return to your land and to your birthplace, and I will do good to you. I have to diminish by all the kindness, and by all the truth that you have done for your servant. For with my staff I have crossed the Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Rescue me please, from the hands of my brother, from the hands of Esav. For I fear him least he come and strike me, mother and child. And You had said, ‘I will surely do good with you, and I will make your offspring like the sand of the sea, which is too numerous to be counted.’”
We see that Yaakov is afraid. He’s afraid that Esav’s going to come with his 400 men, so he starts to pray. He mentions all the blessings that Hashem promised him. If you go back to possuk, “Behold I am with you and I will guard you whether you go, and return you to the soil. I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken for you.” We see that Yaakov became afraid, but on the other hand we see all the blessings that Hashem promised him. And Yaakov starts to pray, “Please remember, please remember all the promises You did for me.” The Rambam says, “Yaakov did not rely on his righteousness to protect him from harm. Rather, he exerted himself with his every capability in order to secure his salvation. This is to teach future generations, because everything that occurred to our forefather Yaakov and with Esav will continue to occur with Esav’s descendants. Therefore it’s fitting for us to hold on to the path of the righteous, which is Yaakov, and to prepare ourselves with three items.” What did he prepare himself with? With prayer, and gifts, and preparing for war. So, we see from here that Yaakov didn’t just rely on his righteousness. He actually prepared himself, and did something. Here comes Esav, what am I going to do?
Rav Wolbe wants to add onto this that the Avos, Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov, understood that since the world ran al pi teva, there’s a nature to the world. Therefore, we also have to act according to the laws of nature. Yaakov didn’t just say, “Hashem, you’re in charge. You take care of everything.” That’s not what happened. And he didn’t just pray. He did everything in his power to protect him and his family. And this is the Jewish way, not just to say, “Oh, God You take care of everything.” No, we have do to hishtadlus. We have to do what’s in our power to do, and Hashem will give us the blessing.
He tells a story about Rav Leib Malin who urged all the bochurim, all the Mir Yeshiva to flee to Japan. There were many people who fought against him. But no, he pushed because Rav Yerucham Leibowitz impressed on him that a person can’t rely on miracles. We can’t rely on miracles. And thank God, in the end they listened to the Rav and everybody went to Japan, and they were saved. He brings a raya from the Shulchan Orech that says, “Even when a person takes medication he’s supposed to pray, “May it be Your will that this endeavor provide a cure for me.” So, it’s a combination of acting and praying. But Rav Avigdor Miller asks a kasha, “Wait a second. It says in Chovas Levavos, The Duties of the Heart, like this. ‘Among the benefits of bitachon, of faith, the mind is free from worldly matters. And his joy is whatever he encounters, because he trusts in Hashem only to do good for him. And whatever Hashem does is the best.’” So, if that’s true, why was Yaakov afraid, and he starts getting ready for war, and then separating the camps. He wants to answer, “No. Chovas Levavos, the Duties of the Heart, is only referring to circumstances that have no immediate danger. But if there’s something really in front of you that’s dangerous, you don’t have to say, ‘Oh, no problem. Hashem will take care of it.’ No.” He says, “Hashem desires that men become greatly afraid of him. And when they see immediate danger confronting them, they should act.”
And there’s two parts. The first part is to gain the fear of God and recognize that we need Him and to call out to Him, and the second thing is to act. So, the first thing is prayer. Something’s really happening, you have to pray, and you have to act, which is actually a beautiful chiddush because it makes the difference. The difference is, if something is not immediate, so of course you shouldn’t worry. You should sleep at night. You should do whatever you can, but you have to have faith and you have to trust that Hashem’s going to take care of you. But if something is there right in front of you and immediate, you have to go according to the laws of nature, and you have to protect yourself. People get confused with this and think, “Ah, have faith in Hashem. No problem.” No, we have to go according to nature, and that’s what the Rambam is saying, and that’s what the rabbonim are saying here.
But the question comes back, because in this case Yaakov was promised that he’s going to be okay. All those possukim, all those verses that say, Hashem’s going to take care of them. So, why was he scared? Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch brings a midrash that says, “A righteous person has no absolute assurance in this world. Every promise is conditional. Why? It depends on the continued righteous conduct of that person. And it could be forfeited at any time, with one wrong step. And that’s why it says, ‘Yigrom cheit,’ Yaakov was afraid that maybe he’d sinned. And he knew that if he sinned, he could lose all of his promises, the promise was not forever. The promise is depending on his behavior.”
He adds another beautiful idea. It says, “He was afraid and he was distressed.” The loshen there, the language of distress is yetzar, he was in a narrow place. He says, “This is true about all the Jewish people in relationship to Esav. For all the generations, because ma’aseh l’avos siman lebanim, for all the centuries we found ourselves limited.” He says, “Our lives and our happiness are not the guiding and determining factor, rather dependent on the graces and the aims of others. We must suffice ourselves with the crumbs that happen to fall from the table of the happiness of the other nations.” Yaakov felt he was entirely at the mercy of Esav. That’s why he divided the camps, hoping that one camp will survive. And that’s been true by all the Jewish people throughout history, because we’re all over the place and the nations never destroyed us. And that was the extra stress that Yaakov was feeling. He understood that it was happening, and now it was also going to happen to his children for generations, and cause them distress.
But why was Yaakov afraid that Esav was going to defeat him? And that’s because Esav also had zechus, he also had merit. The Ramchal explains, when he said, “Esav my brother,” my brother who has the same father. And we know that Esav did tremendous kibbud av v’em. He honored his father tremendously, more than Yaakov. So, Yaakov was afraid maybe on the zechus that Esav gave tremendous kavod, honor to Yitzhak. On that zechus, maybe he’s going to kill me. He’s going to wipe out my family.
And he had another zechus. Which zechus? Bris milah, circumcision. It says in the possuk, “For I fear him, ki yirei anochi oto.” He asks, “If Yaakov was asking Hashem to help him, of course he’s afraid. Why does he have to say he’s afraid? He wants to say of the word, oto, if you take off the vov you have the word os, a siman, sign. What’s the siman? Bris milah. “I’m afraid of my brother, I’m afraid of the merit that my brother has. Maybe he’s going to be able to overpower me, because of these two mitzvos – kibbud av v’em, and bris milah.” And Rav Moshe Feinstein explains that he was afraid that it’s true, okay, maybe I’ll survive or part of us will survive. Maybe part of the people will be lost. There’s no guarantee that the fulfillment of all the promises is going to come painlessly. Who says it’s going to go smoothly? Maybe some people are going to be killed?
And along the same lines he brings a Rashi that says, “Yaakov was frightened. Why? Maybe he’ll be killed. And he was distressed because maybe he’s going to have to kill others. So, why was he distressed if he’s going to have to kill others? He was in self-defense, he’s allowed to kill him.” The answer was, if that was true, that means that he was off. If that’s the way the he’s going to be saved because he has to kill somebody else, surely something’s wrong. Maybe he sinned. Why did it come to the situation, why did he have to come and kill somebody? Is that the way the promise is going to be fulfilled? Why can’t it just be fulfilled in an easier way?
He brings a beautiful raya that when the Jewish people came to Eretz Yisroel, so some of the houses became afflicted with tzoras, leprosy. When a house has leprosy, they have to take the house apart brick by brick. What happened when they took the houses apart? They found treasures that were hid there from the nations from before them. So, you would think, “Wow, what a great gift. Look, they took apart their houses and they found all this money.” He says, “It’s true they found money, but why did it have to come this way? Because they spoke loshen hara and they had to take apart their houses, and they found these gifts but if that’s the way to get rich, Hashem could have made a different way for them to get rich.” So, Yaakov was saying the same thing. Why is this happening to me? Maybe I’m going to have to kill somebody? That means I’m off. That means there’s something wrong.” That’s what he was afraid of.
And the Beis haLevi continues in these lines, and he says like this. “His main concern was for the glory of Hashem, because maybe his sins would stop the Creator being good to him in his attendance.” He brings a proof from Avraham Avinu where the verse says, “For I know Him, and I know that He will charge his children and his household after Him. And they will keep the ways of Hashem, upholding charity and justice. In this way, Hashem is going to be able to give the blessing to the children, which means Avraham will charge his children to be righteous, thereby enabling Hashem to act out His goodwill towards them. So, in this case,” the Beis haLevi says, “The reward of a sin is a sin. And it’s going to be a chillul Hashem.” Why? Because Hashem wants to do good for us. What happens, Yaakov was afraid, maybe he sinned. Because he could see what’s out there, he was being punished. And why was this happening? Because a sinner forces a punishment to come. And that punishment itself is a chillul Hashem. People say, “Hey, what’s with this guy? He looks like a righteous guy. Why is he getting all this suffering?” So, the Beis haLevi held that he was afraid that he was not going to be able to bring Hashem into the world, because if he’s going to get punished, and we know the future generations are also going to get punished, so people won’t believe in God. They’ll say, “Where is this God who told us to do these mitzvos?” And we’re supposed to do these mitzvos, and everybody’s doing the mitzvos, and they’re getting punished. What’s happening? They’ll see the Jews being punished and they’ll say, “Where is God?”
And the Gur Aryeh also said it was a spiritual fear. Why? He has the difficulty again. The halacha is, if someone comes to kill you, you kill him first. So, why was Yaakov afraid to kill? He says, “Since 400 men were coming, he didn’t know exactly which ones were coming to kill him. Maybe some of them don’t really want to kill him, and he’ll wind up killing them,” which means he’ll do a sin. And if that happens, he’ll lose everything. He’ll lose all of his blessings, because the blessings are dependent on his righteousness.
The Beis haLevi also brings a totally different approach, you have to hear this. The verse says, “Save me please from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esav.” Why does it have to say both, the hand of my brother and the hand of Esav? Just say, “From the hand of my brother, Esav.” Why the hand of my brother, the hand of Esav? What did Yaakov fear? He said , either way he’s afraid. Either he’s afraid he’s going to be acting like Esav, he’s going to want to kill me. Or he was afraid that maybe he’s going to act like my brother,” and that he was really afraid of. He was afraid he was going to make peace with him, and want to stay with him. And that would be a spiritual disaster so he prayed, “Please protect me from the hand of my brother, if he acts like my brother, and protect me if he acts like Esav, from the hand of Esav. “And he put brother first,” he says. “It’s more scary.” And we see today, assimilation. When Esav acts towards us like a brother, it’s the most dangerous thing for the Jewish people, because even though we live among the nations and we were happy with them, we had nothing against them. But if they wanted us to give up our mitzvos like Esav did, that’s a big problem. The Tanna Debei Eliyahu Zutra says, “Esav said, ‘Give up some of the mitzvos that divide us. You will thereby enjoy this world, and still have half of the world to come. Isn’t half enough?” What was their problem? Because if Yaakov would give up even one mitzvah, he would drown materialism.
He brings a beautiful proof, look at this. We know the word for exile is perach, hard labor. But it also could mean peh rach, a soft mouth. Smooth talking. And Yaakov was more worried about that exile than another one. That’s the exile we’re in now. All the nations want to be friends with us. And slowly, slowly, we start to assimilate. We don’t keep all the mitzvos exactly. We want to be part of the group, we don’t want to dress different. We don’t want to have different names and different clothes, so we give that all up. That’s what Yaakov was afraid of. Maaser avos siman lebanim, the acts of the fathers are a siman, a sign for the sons. He says, “Esav will even adopt certain tenants of Judaism such as monotheism, the dignity of the Torah, reward and punishment, only if Yisroel give up some of their heritage.” This is where we’re standing now. Assimilation and intermarriage, what’s the problem?
So, Rav Yitzhak Zilberstein in his sefer Aleinu Leshebeach brings a beautiful story about this, about this, about protecting ourselves from assimilating. He tells a story of the Brisker Rav in the last generation in Eretz Yisroel, when there was excavations in Tiveria. So, there was a whole uproar. Why? They were digging in areas where there were graves which is forbidden, to build in Tiveria. So, all the religious came to honor the dead, to stop this building. And the Brisker Rav was at the head of the whole fight. So, one time the Brisker Rav invited Government ministers to his home to try to persuade them to stop digging in these areas. Now, these were two Jews who weren’t shomer Shabbos, they didn’t keep anything. And of course, they rejected everything that the Rav said, based on the law. And they sat a long time in the meeting, and nothing came out of the meeting. And then they left. So, the Brisker Rav asked one of his sons, “What did they say?” The son said, “What do you mean? You were at the meeting also. Why are you asking us what they said? Didn’t you hear what they said?” He said, “No, I didn’t even hear a word. I was afraid they would influence me with their incorrect perspectives.” This is the Brisker Rav, the greatest Rav in the generation. He devoted his entire life to Torah and mitzvos. His father and his grandfather were the gedolei olam, the biggest Rabbis that ever lived in the generation. And he was afraid that these people were going to influence him? The answer is, yes. That’s how much we have to worry about the outside influences. And that’s why we think everything’s okay, actually. We’re so influenced, we don’t even know. After 2,000 years of exile, imagine how far away we are really, from the Torah and the Torah perspective – how much we have to protect ourselves.
And this was the fear that Yaakov had of Esav, his brother. So, after that long list of fears, different reasons to be afraid, and how it’s helpful to be afraid, I want to bring Rav Henoch Leibowitz. He brings the Midrash Rabba that says that the story which was written in the Torah when Yaakov was afraid of Esav was there to teach us. But the Jews of Persia learned it the wrong way. They became afraid and they were sad, and had despair. The Midrash tells us that they did not interpret the situation properly. This emotional process rendered them incapable of helping themselves. But that’s not the right way to learn about them. What’s the right way to learn about them? He says like this. “Yaakov was not frozen by his fears. He transformed that fear into an impetus for action, strengthening himself spiritually with teshuva and prayer, and physical preparations for battle. Yaakov uses fear to reinforce his faith in Hashem’s protection, and to spur himself on to action. Therefore, by changing his hopeless situation into a hopeful one, his renewed trust in Hashem gave him peace of mind, comfort and security. This kind of fear is a mitzvah. And it’s mentioned in the Torah to be an example for us.” He says, “In our own lives, if we find ourselves afraid of what’s going to be, what’s going to be with our financial situation, what’s going to be with our children, our wives, our kids, our parents, with the situation now? What’s going to be with terrorism?” I mean, there’s no shortage of fears, I could go on for the next four hours of things to be afraid of. That’s not the point. He said, “When we find ourselves afraid, we must examine the direction of our fear and where it’s leading us. Is our fear dragging us down, or is it lifting us up? We must direct it properly and use it as a tool to better ourselves. The only fear that is justified is the fear of Hashem. All the other fears are the result of a lack of faith. The more we trust in Hashem and only Hashem, the less fear we’ll have from others. The more we internalize this and engrave it in our minds, the more productive and happy our lives will become.
So yes, it’s true. God put fear into the world. Every human being is afraid of something, of certain situations, we’re afraid. We have to use it for good, for positive, for growth, for personal growth. That’s why Hashem put it in the world. That’s what it’s there for, to get us to move, to act, to pray, to prepare, to grow. And that’s the lesson the Torah’s teaching us. We learned it from Yaakov Avinu. After he prayed, he had faith. He went up a level. And also in the positive, maaseh l’avos, siman lebanim, what our forefathers did is a siman for us. And if we have faith, and if we grow through fear, our children will also learn to grow through fear. They’ll also learn how to cope with life. So, all the negative and difficult situations that we have in life, we could turn them around to be positive, to give us more faith, to pray more, to do the right thing and get back on the right path.
A Powerful Parable
The Maggid mi Dubno brings a moshul, parable. The verse said, “Yaakov was very frightened and distressed.” He says it’s like this. A person wanted to know if he had good luck or bad luck. He spoke to different wise people, and they told him, “You know what you do? Play dice on your birthday, and see if you win or lose. If you make money on your birthday, that means you have good luck. But if you lose, surely you have bad luck.” Obviously, it’s not a Torah idea, it’s just a moshul. But that’s what they said to him. What happened? He lost time after time. So he explained, “The fact that he lost the game, the actual game, that wasn’t the loss. The loss was that this man felt that he had bad luck. And from that point on, he was always afraid of everything. So too, Yaakov wasn’t actually afraid for himself. He was afraid of the future. Maaseh l’avos, siman lebanim. He was afraid of what’s going to happen to all the future generations, that’s what he was afraid of.
Great Stories – Rav Shach
The verse says, “He put the handmaids and the children first, and Leah and her children later, and Rochel and Yosef last.” So, one time Rav Shach said, “I have a tremendous chiddush,” thought. I’ve had it for two weeks, and I didn’t tell anybody. So the people said, “Please, please, tell us.” He says, “I have a difficulty on this verse. How could it be that Yaakov differentiated between his children so much? Apparently, it appears that the children and the wives that were less important to him, he put them in front. And the ones that were more important, Yosef and Rochel, he put them at the back. How could it be? Is that the way for a father to act? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Rav Shach says, “I have a chiddush it’s the opposite. We know that Yosef told his father that the other brothers used to make fun of the children of the handmaiden. So, lechora, it appears that those children must have suffered a lot. And we know that suffering atones for sin. So, it must be they had a greater merit which would protect them. Therefore, he put the children and the handmaiden in front. And we know that Leah and Leah’s children felt less loved than Rochel and Yosef. So, they must have been more humble. And someone who is humble has more merits for salvation. Therefore, he put Leah and her children next. But Rochel and Yosef who he loved the most, so they suffered the least, so they had the least amount of merits. So, he put them last, because they needed more protection.” Rav Shach says, “This is the true understanding of the verse.”
Peace in Your Home
Rav Moshe Aaron Stern talks about laziness after marriage. We know that after people get married, they start to get comfortable, and that’s a problem. So, he brings the verse that says, “When Hashem widened your borders and you keep all the mitzvos to love Hashem, and you walk in His ways, specifically then you have to build more irei miklat,” which means cities of refuge, where people have to go that if somebody gets killed he has to hide there.
So, why do we need more cities like this for bad things that are happening at a time when everybody’s following the mitzvos? It should be the opposite. When they don’t follow the mitzvos, they have to irei miklat because there’s more aveiros flying around, and there’s more incidents like this, where people get killed by accident.
He says, “No, just the opposite. When everybody’s doing mitzvos, that’s where the yetzer hara comes in. That’s where a lot of people fall. If there’s a lot of people doing mitzvos, a lot of people fall. More people fall. It’s because they become complacent. Oh yeah, everything’s fine. Everybody’s doing mitzvos, right?
He brings a proof from the Gemara in Sanhedrin 97A that says, “One time there was a town named Kushta. Kushta means truth, in Aramaic. And there, people only spoke truth. And the angel of death had no power over that city. No one there ever died. So, Rav Tavos went to go and live there, and he married a local woman and he had two children. One day, the neighbor came by, and wanted to speak to Rav Tavor’s wife. She was washing her hair, so he told her, ‘She’s not home.’ Why? Because his wife was not tzneius, modest. She’s washing her hair, and he just told the lady, ‘Listen, she’s not home. What happened? Because of this, his two sons died. When the people heard that the two sons died they said, ‘Listen, you have to leave here immediately. Why didn’t you tell the truth?’”
So, he asked a question. Wait a second. If this Rav, Rav Tavos, didn’t they check out before that he is a guy who always speaks the truth? They wouldn’t have let him come and live there if he didn’t speak the truth. So, why did he end up lying? The answer is, as long as Rav Tavos was not in that city, he had to stand up for the right values, so of course he never lied. But in this town there was no struggle to tell the truth, it was easy. That’s why he wound up telling a lie. Ah, he told a lie because of tzneius, because his wife had her hair uncovered? Okay, but it still came out, it was a lie. That’s because he had his guard down. It says the same thing can happen to a yeshiva guy who gets married, and he’s the biggest masmid, diligent person. And now he marries the daughter of a talmid chacham, Torah scholar, and he’s on top of the world. From there, he starts to fall. Like it says in Midrash Shir haShirim, “When you were in Egypt you were like a rose among the thorns. Be careful not to do as the other gentiles do.”
When they came to Eretz Yisroel, when they were in Egypt they didn’t change their names. They kept their language, and their way of dress, and they were protecting themselves and they were on guard. All of a sudden, they come to Eretz Yisroel to the Holy Land, then everybody’s holy and it’s all holy there. So, they start to slack off. That’s why they had to make new laws and regulations to protect themselves. So too in your marriage, you start to slack off. Before, when you’re going out together and you’re dating, everybody’s nice, and everybody’s kind. Then after you get married, now you can relax, right? No. Now is not the time to relax. You have to continue with middos tovos, with good character, doing the right thing. If you want to have peace in your house, that’s what you’re going to have to do.
He brings a raya from Lot, also. Lot wanted to be in Sodom, why? Because he was a tzaddik over there. As long as Lot was in Sodom everything’s fine, he’s a tzaddik. I don’t want to go with Avraham. If I go with Avraham, I’m going to be nothing. Ah, you’ll say, “Listen, if a guy is righteous among the wicked, surely he’s going to be righteous among the righteous.” It’s not so simple. Sometimes the opposite happens. But he says, “Sometimes baalei teshuvas, returnees to Judaism they say listen, at the beginning they’re on very high levels. And slowly they say, “I’m no longer a baal teshuva, I’m like everybody else.” Why does that happen? Because at the beginning when they came to Yiddishkeit, they were very makpid, very strict and they guarded everything. And as time went by, they’re not a baal teshuva any more, “I’m a regular guy.” So, they drop levels. The same thing in your house. It shouldn’t be the longer you’re married – I mean, it’s al pi teva, that’s the nature. The longer you’re married, the more you relax, the more you let loose, the more you don’t need to guard yourself. But that’s not going to lead to a happy home.
If you want to have a happy home, you have to continue to uplift yourself, to grow, to become even better and better, kinder and nicer, and more spiritual, and bring more spirituality into the home. That’s what’s going to give you peace in your home.
Okay, that’s it for this week’s podcast, I hope you enjoyed it. Please share it with your friends, and please leave comments.
Rabbi Eliyahu Mitterhoff