Fearing Fear Itself and Beating Brutal Arms with Happy Feet

Yaakov needed to defend himself and his family. So why was he anxious about killing others?
Why did Yaakov’s wrestling match opponent aim for the hip?

The messengers returned and said to Yaakov,” We came to your brother Esav and he is also heading towards you and has 400 men with him. Yaakov was very frightened and anxious …

— Bereishis 32-7,8

Yaakov was very frightened and anxious: He was frightened for fear that he might be killed and he was anxious lest he kill others (Bereishis Rabbah 75:2, MidrashTanchuma-Vayishlach 4.)

— Rashi ibid

HaShem; isn’t it so that I hate those that hate You? And do not I bicker with those that rise up against You? I hate them with supreme hatred; they have become my own enemies.  

— Tehillim 139;21,22

When it goes well for the virtuous, the town celebrates; and when the wicked perish, there is joy.  

— Mishlei 11:10

Save me I pray from the hand of my brother; from the hand of Esav for I fear him …

— Bereishis  32:12

[Regarding the miraculous trial of the Sotah-suspected adulteress;] our Rabbis taught: “And the man will then be free of sin [but the woman will be punished if guilty.]” (BeMidbar 5:31) — [Only] at such times when the husband is free of sin, will the waters test his wife; but when the man is not free of sin, the waters will not test his wife.”

— Sotah 47B

And [when] Yaakov was left alone, a stranger wrestled with him, raising dust, until the darkness lifted. When the stranger saw that he could not overwhelm him he touched Yaakovs upper thigh joint. Yaakov’s upper thigh joint was dislocated as he raised the dust with him.

— Bereishis  32:25,26

The sun rose and was shining on him as he passed through Penuel and he was limping on account of his [dislocated] thigh [joint.] Therefore the bnei Yisrael-Children of Israel; refrain from eating the gid hanasheh-the displaced nerve; on the hip joint to this very day.

— Bereishis  32:32,33

The sun rose for him: … The Midrashic interpretation (Bereishis Rabbah 68:10) [is]: The sun rose for him-to heal his limp, as it is said: (Malachi 3:20): “the sun of mercy, with healing in its wings.”

— Rashi ibid

Chazal-our Talmudic sages; quoted by Rashi teach that Yaakov had an ominous presentiment about his encounter with Esav based on the dual fears of killing and of being killed. At first glance it is perfectly reasonable that Yaakov Avinu would fear being killed. Almost all of humanity is afflicted with death anxiety for a variety of reasons. In Yaakov’s case, no doubt, it stemmed from nobler considerations than in the vast majority of humanity, but we can at least hazard educated guesses of why he feared his own death.  Not so when considering his other source of anxiety.

The Biskovitzer asks; what did Yaakov have to fear about the possibility of killing others (presumably Esav and his cohorts)? After all,  they were reshaim-wicked people; approaching Yaakov and his family with unjust and unprovoked lethal intentions and the Midrash Tanchuma (Pinchas 1) teaches that “one who spills the blood of reshaim is considered to have offered a korban-sacrifice; to HaShem.”

HaShem had made a covenant with Yaakov and Promised a glorious future for the nation that would descend from his children. As one with flawless faith in, and reliance on, HaShem; the possibility of his own death during this impending encounter with his evil twin should never have occurred to him.  Even if it did, the prospect of his own demise should certainly not have frightened him.  Yet he prayed to HaShem saying, “save me … from the hand of Esav for I fear him.”

The Biskovitzer explains that, in fact, Yaakov was on a level so lofty that he should not have had even a trace of death anxiety. Yet, he did. By his own admission he feared Esav.  Yaakov was frightened of his own fear and tried to make sense of it. He intuited that had he attained shleimus-perfect spiritual wholesomeness; no fear of Esav would have afflicted his heart. Once he concluded that his fear of being killed by Esav was a result of his not being completely free of sin himself he then grew anxious over the prospect of slaying the reshaim. The Biskovitzer implies that the rule of “one who spills the blood of reshaim is considered to have offered a korban” only applies when the “shochet-ritual slaughterer;” of the korban is completely free of sin himself. As Yaakov analyzed his death anxiety to indicate that he was not entirely “clarified” of evil himself, he feared that he lacked the moral right to slay reshaim. This is why he grew anxious lest he kill others.

Later in our weekly sidrah when Yaakov confronts the Samach Mem AKA the Saro shel Esav-Esav’s guardian angel; he ultimately vanquishes the angel.  Nevertheless he did not come out of his wrestling match unscathed. His hip joint in his upper thigh had been dislocated causing nerve damage that left him limping. This, declares the Torah, is the reason that bnei Yisrael are prohibited from consuming the gid hanasheh-sciatic nerve.

The wrestling match between Yaakov and the Saro shel Esav affected more than just the person of Yaakov. Both the victory, elevating his identity from being merely Yaakov to being Yisrael — one who contends with a spiritual being and is equal to the task — and the incompleteness of the victory— the damaged sciatic nerve that left him limping — became the spiritual legacy of the bnei Yisrael. This paradigm shift filters through many levels of bnei Yisrael’s metaphysical makeup and destiny.  The Zohar (I 171A) teaches about one of the parallel aspects between Yaakov/ Yisrael’s battle with the angel and bnei Yisrael’s eternal battle with its enemies.

Torah is our ace-in-the-hole weapon in our eternal war against Esav and his Sar; k’she’hakol kol Yaakov ein hayadayim yedei Esav– whenever the “voice of Yaakov” is operative in Torah study, Esav’s arms are rendered impotent (cp. Bereishis Rabbah 65:20 ). Nevertheless the wrestler’s otherwise healthy body may falter and topple over when wobbly legs threaten to bring him down. To carry the allegory further, if Torah is the alter-ego of the trunk and torso of bnei Yisrael then two healthy, firm and sturdy legs are the tamchin d’Oraisa-the supporters of Torah.

On a macro-national level tamchin d’Oraisa refers to the financial patrons and the supporting cast that provide material support for the Torah students engaged in the actual scholarship. Donors who cut checks to yeshivos, kollelim and batei medrash and/or who fund incentive programs for Torah scholars young and old; as well as the builders who erect batei medrash for the scholars to learn in, dining rooms for the scholars to gain nourishment in, dormitories and kollel housing for the scholars to live in; and the crews who help expand, repair and maintain them — are all the sturdy legs that give voice to the Torah emanating from the “trunk” of bnei Yisrael.  When these falter, when the legs begin limping, the Torah voice of Yaakov/Yisrael grows hoarse or inaudible thus empowering the arms of Esav. On the macro-national level there is a clear division between those engaged in actually giving voice to Torah and those dedicated to providing a supportive platform for the Torah scholars.

Yet man is a microcosm. The Biskovitzer wonders how to define the tamchin d’Oraisa on the micro-personal level.  He concludes that the “enablers” of Torah study that are intrinsic to the person are the joyful yearnings and passions to learn Torah and serve HaShem. Absent a bren-a fiery enthusiasm; the individuals voice for Torah and prayer grows muted. Despair and hopelessness “injures the legs” and pulls the rug out from under an individual Jew’s Torah and prayer as certainly as self-indulgent, stingy or impoverished donor class does to klal Yisrael.

Saro shel Esav, especially in his manifestation as the arch anti-Semitic enemy nation of Amalek, directs its attacks against klal Yisrael and individual Jews by causing apathy to Torah and prayer borne of despair and hopelessness. This is why the enemy’s focus is on the gid hanasheh close by, both anatomically and metaphysically, the os bris kodesh–the sign of the holy covenant; i.e. the circumcised member that is the locus of Jewish sanctity. When one has experienced setbacks and shortcomings in matters of kedushas habris-through licentiousness and moral decadence, despair and hopelessness are the inevitable results.

When a Jew senses a deficiency of purity and sanctity in these essential matters he feels too humiliated to stand before his Creator in prayer or to study His holy Torah. Per the Midrash Tanchuma (Ki Seitzei 9) Amalek cooled the ardor of bnei Yisrael physically by assaulting in ways that rendered them impure.  This is the constant historical pattern and unvarying tactic of the Saro shel Esav who established the precedent in the person of Yaakov /Yisrael. Saro shel Esav clutches a partial victory from the jaws of defeat by damaging the gid hanasheh cutting the healthy supports out from under his opponent.  Especially when directing his attack against an individual Jew this means inducing despair and hopelessness via “injuring” i.e. impurifying the individuals’ gid hanasheh/ os bris kodesh.

If the battle were a physical one then the best defensive tactic would be to physically shield and strengthen the hips and thighs.  But we must never forget that the stranger that Yaakov/Yisrael contended with was an angel; and so the battle is waged on the metaphysical/ emotional plane. As such, the best defensive tactic is to shield and strengthen the emotional support system. We fight against hopelessness by refusing to fall down emotionally, by never giving in to despair. We must take a step back and realize that HaShem’s Patience, Love, Power and Desire to Help us are Infinite and so … hope springs eternal. Hopelessness and despair are the cons of the great deceiver, the Saro shel Esav, intended to make us flee from before G-d in disgrace and humiliation.

Happy feet and dancing legs do not limp. We need to raise our voices loud and clear in Torah and prayer to neutralize the brutal arms of Esav but we can only do so by empowering our own intrinsic tamchin d’Oraisa with the sturdy pillars of passion born of hope, optimism and joy. In darkness and despair we limp along as the walking wounded, in the sunshine of joy we are made whole again.

~adapted from Neos Deshe Vayishlach D”H Vayira and D”H Vayiga