Courage has many faces. It can mean saying no to compromise, or it can mean making a difficult compromise. It can entail dying a heroic death or living through terrible pain. It can mean fighting a good fight, or knowing when it is best for all to concede. But always courage involves facing our fears. Our patriarch Jacob of course is a splendid example of these multiple faces of courage.
On the surface it may appear that Jacob’s fear of his brother Esau’s retribution betrayed a lack of faith in God’s promise of protection, a promise that God reiterated when He commanded Jacob to return to Eretz Yisrael (Genesis 31:3). Rashi comments though, that a righteous man is never so sure of himself, and must be guarded against sin that might forfeit that protection. This is not a lack of faith, rather a sober approach toward balancing trust in the faithfulness of God, and an honest assessment of our own weaknesses. This is not so different than the Shaliach’s encouragement/admonition to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12)
Oxford English Dictionary defines courage as “facing danger without fear.” This may be a popular opinion, but I think patently untrue. In fact, I believe only people who are afraid can exhibit courage. Fear is to courage what breathing in is to breathing out. The question is where do we get the strength to do the things we are afraid of? The answer I believe is hope, and Jacob remembered the promises of God to him. Like Jacob we fear and hope at the same time. Fear lurks behind hope the way the dark side of the moon lurks behind its shining face. But if there is an on the ground lesson to learn from Jacob, it is how to act well in the face of fear, obeying God, and trusting in His provision and protection, one day at a time.
Jacob had run from Esau and his wrath twenty years prior, but now it was time to compartmentalize his fear, trust God, and step out in faith. Just as Yeshua instructed us, “ Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will have its own worries.” (Matt. 6:34) Thoughts about our failures of the past, and fear of the future, can stagnate us in the present, cause us to procrastinate, and keep us from our destiny. Ernst Becker wrote in his book The Denial of Death, “Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing.” Though our sophisticated contemporary mechanisms may be different than our ancestors, it is part of the human condition to avoid what is really threatening to us. So herein lies the brilliance of Jacob’s communication with Esau, because in many ways he is really clarifying his own objectives to face his fears head on. “I have been staying with Laban…now I am sending this message to my lord.” Effectively he is saying, “before I ran from you…but now I am facing the consequences of my actions.” (Genesis 32:5)
Jacob does not launch himself into this meeting with his brother recklessly though. Rather the patriarch leaves us a practical model for approaching our own fears that can be seen in three basic and pragmatic steps.
Step 1 – Analyze the situation fearlessly and honestly and figure out what might be the worst that could occur as the result of failure. So Jacob sent messengers (Genesis 32:3) to access the potential for reconciliation. He then had the messengers access Esau’s military strength. The messengers were not certain whether Esau would accept Jacob’s peace offering, but they was 100% certain that Esau had a small army of four hundred men.
Step 2 – After figuring the worst that could happen, reconcile yourself to accepting it, if necessary, giving the result over to Providence. (Genesis 32:9-12) Jacob prays with fervor reminding God and himself of the Divine promise for protection.
Step 3 – From that time on, calmly devote your time and energy to improving upon the worst that could happen. Jacob splits divides the camp in two to diminish the possibility of his entire family being wiped out (Genesis 32:7-8.) Jacob then sends gifts ahead in an attempt to mend fences between himself and Esau (Genesis 32:13-2). He prepares for war but works diligently toward peace. Jacob defers to Esau calling him “my lord”. He does not count compromise as weakness, rather he uses it as a strength.
Jacob prepared for confrontation as though it would hopefully pass and also in case it did not. He prepared for the worst and hoped for the best – but he prayed fervently. The amazing thing is that Jacob pulls it off, he not lives and makes peace with his brother, but he gets to keep all of his livestock as well. And Jacob acted in spite of the fact we are told he is in great fear and distress. We are often afraid that we are losing the fight, and we suffer fear and anxiety. But hope brings back a faith that we will win. So face those fears, large and small, head on, and echo the words of the Shaliach, “I can do all things through Messiah who strengthens me.”