“And Jacob was very frightened and distressed” (Breisheet 32:8). After some 22 years Yaakov Avinu is returning home. Afraid that Eisav – who years earlier had promised to kill him – still may want to harm him, he sends gifts to his brother hoping to appease him. Not knowing if such offers of peace would help – thankfully they did – Yaakov is afraid. After all, the messengers return with the message that Eisav is coming with an army of 400 men. This is not a good sign and his level of fear reflects that. “Deliver me,” Yaakov beseeches G-d, “from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Eisav; because I am afraid lest he will come and strike me, mothers and children alike” (Breisheet 32:12) .

Years earlier, having taken the blessings meant for his brother, Yaakov is on the run. He is tired, rests on a rock and dreams of G-d protecting him and bringing him home safely. Yet this experience frightens him. Interestingly, his fear is triggered by the awesomeness of the experience. “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of G-d, and that is the gateway to heaven” (Breisheet 28:17).

Yet in addition to awe of G-d, Yaakov is clearly afraid of Eisav. “If God remains with me, protecting me on this journey that I am making, and giving me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and I return safe to my father’s house — the Lord shall be my G-d and this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You” (Breisheet 28:20-22).

Perhaps his vision was nothing but a dream – wishful thinking on the part of Yaakov. Unsure of the veracity of what he is “told”, Yaakov vows that if he returns safely home then he will be able to fully accept the Lord as his G-d.

As Yaakov is set to return home – 22 years, four wives and 12 children later – he is afraid once again. Yaakov divides his “camp” into two hoping at least one will make it back alive. He is prepared to fight if need be. He is very afraid. Noting the double expression, Vayira Yaakov meod vayetzer lo, Yaakov was very frightened and distressed, our Sages note that Yaakov was afraid, vayira, he would be killed, or conversely vayetzer, he would be forced to kill[1].

Recalling his original flight, he invokes G-d’s earlier promise – apparently realizing (or is it only hoping?) it was no dream, but still unsure if it will be fulfilled. Perhaps “sin has caused” the promise to be nullified (See Ramban, Breisheet 28:20).

Thankfully the meeting goes better than anyone could have expected. “Eisav ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept”. While they each go their separate ways, they do come together years later as they bury their father Yitzchak. They may not be close but they are not enemies either.

While Yaakov’s fear for his physical safety may have been unwarranted, this is not the only time Yaakov expresses fear. Years later as he is about to depart to Egypt and reunite with Yosef – what should be one of the happiest moments of his life – he is afraid. “And He said, I am G-d, the G-d of your father’s [house]. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation” (Breisheet 46:3). 

We are not told why Yaakov is afraid - could it be that he feared he would not survive the journey, or that he would never return to the Land of Israel? Or perhaps, despite his love of Yosef he was afraid –  as it turns out for good reason – that the Yosef whom he last saw at 17 was a very different Yosef than the one he would now see. How else can one explain how so soon after reuniting with Yosef he could tell Pharoah “Few and bad have been the years of my life” (Breisheet 47:9). Whatever the reason for his fear, G-d reassures him that it is in Egypt that “I will make you there into a great nation”.

Yaakov was not the only of the Avot who was gripped by fear. “After these incidents, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, "Fear not, Abram; I am your Shield; your reward is exceedingly great" (Breisheet 15:1). Here too we are not specifically told why Avraham was afraid[2].  

Telling someone not to be afraid is not very helpful and might even be harmful. Unless it is G-d doing the telling. Generally speaking, fear itself is a negative emotion. We are not afraid of those to whom we are close. That is why the mitzva of yirat Hashem, does not mean to fear G-d, but rather to be in awe of G-d[3]. Awe does connote a certain distance but this is a distance of respect, a respect combined with trust and closeness.

One who is able to feel very close to G-d will not only not fear Him, they will not fear others either. Trusting that G-d[4] has a masterplan for the world – a most difficult trust – we can forward with confidence despite what challenges may lay ahead.

Our Sages equate Avraham with the trait of chesed, kindness, and Yitzchak with that of geuvrah, strength, perhaps better translated as fearlessness. Of our Avot, only by Yitzchak is there no record of him being afraid. There is no getting closer to G-d than willingly lying on an altar to G-d, willing to be sacrificed.

May we merit to get closer to G-d not through sacrifice but having multiple reasons to offer our gratitude to Him.

[1] This tragic, but beautiful, sentiment was made famous (and tweaked) by Golda Meir who said while one day we may be able to forgive the Arabs for killing Jews what we can't forgive them for is for making Jewish soldiers kill Arabs. For a more “traditional” source, G-d’s bestowing upon Pinchas a covenant of peace after he killed Zimri and Cuzbi is due to the fact that even when killing is mandated such takes a toll on people, causing internal turmoil, hence the need for a blessing of peace.

[2] Based on the ensuing discussion it would appear the fear is related to Avraham’s lack of an heir. Yet that does not necessarily explain why he was “afraid”, and Avraham’s asking about an heir is a response to G-d telling him not to be afraid, indicating that the fear is based on some prior event – a position taken by Rashi who argues it is related to his having killed people in the war of the four kings and five kings.

[3] Only on the Yamim Noraim, when the books of life and death are opened before G-d, do we pray to fear G-d – but in this case we pray not for yirah but for pachad. Similarity, when the Torah instructs that we should have yirah of our parents it means we should be in awe of them. It is a sad day when one fears their parents. 

[4] While we should trust in G-d, we must never rely on G-d. Ein somchim al hanes, we are forbidden to rely on miracles, and must conduct our life with understanding that it is man, not G-d, who is responsible for what happens. This is part and parcel of the doctrine of free choice – a doctrine that is the basis of Judaism (See Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva, chapter 5).