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13.12.2016 16:21    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parshat hashavua  genesis  vayishlach  

Jacob, In Awe or Fearful of Esau?

“For I am fearful/in awe/ of him” (Gen. 32:12)."

Malbim discovered an important rule for understanding Scripture when he distinguished between the verb yod-resh-alef when accompanied by the letter mem preceding the object as opposed to the verb when it appears without the addition of this letter.  In the first instance, the verb connotes fear in the sense of being afraid of retribution, feeling fright or terror; in the second instance, it means awe, in the sense of admiring, esteeming, honoring (Ha-Karmel, under yare m- or yare et, p. 153).

The verb y-r-‘ in the verse, “Thus will the Lord your G‑d do to all the peoples you now fear (yare mi-pneihem)” (Deut. 7:19), should be read in the sense of fear and apprehension about their might.  Likewise, with the words Moses said to Pharaoh:  “But I know that you and your courtiers do not yet fear the Lord G‑d (tir’un mi-pnei H’)” (Ex. 9:30).  In other words, Pharaoh and his courtiers were not yet seized by terror and fright of the Lord G‑d.  Likewise with the verse, “Saul grew still more afraid of David (lero mi-pnei David)” (I Sam. 18:29).  It does not say lero et David, but had it, that would have meant Saul admired David and liked him.  By adding mi Scripture reveals that Saul was apprehensive about David being likely to seize the crown and that he feared David’s physical strength and domineering.  Such is the case everywhere in Scripture where the letter mem follows the verb y-r-‘.

This is not the case in instances where the letter mem is absent and instead the particle et sometimes appears, indicating that the predicate is the direct object.  For example, “Then the Lord commanded us to observe all these laws, to revere the Lord our G‑d (le-yir’ah et H’)” (Deut. 6:24); “Only this:  to revere the Lord your G‑d (le-yir’ah et H’)” (Deut. 10:12); “Happy is the man who reveres the Lord” (Ps. 112:1), and many more similar usages.

In all these cases we are dealing with yir’ah in the sense of awesome reverence that has an element of admiration and esteem, not yir’ah in the sense of fear and terror in the face of physical punishment.  Hence, when the Lord says to Abraham after testing him with the binding of Isaac, “For now I know that you fear G‑d (yare Elohim)” (Gen. 22:12), it means that Abraham had attained a high level of awesome reverence towards G‑d.  When Joseph says to his brothers, “I am a G‑d-fearing man (et ha-Elohim ani yare)” (Gen. 42:18), he wishes to stress that he is in awe of the Almighty, not that he fears punishment.  Likewise with the verse, “Obadiah revered the Lord greatly (yare et H’)” (I Kings 18:3), and the verse, “That man [Job] was blameless and upright; he feared G‑d (vi-yere Elohimand shunned evil” (Job 1:1).  When there is no mem, it means that these people felt a sense of awe, revering and esteeming the Almighty to the highest possible degree.

This distinction helps us understand the demand:  “Revere your mother and father (Ish imo ve-aviv tira’u).”  Since it does not say Ish me-imo u-me-aviv tira’u, it means that one should esteem one’s parents, being in awe because of their lofty status, not fearing punishment because of the threat that they might use the rod.

Appreciating this distinction between the two ways yir’ah is used helps us reveal a disguised diplomatic move when Solomon ascended the throne after David.  As we know, David’s son Adonijah tried to challenge Solomon and seize the crown while his father was still alive.  Ultimately, when the issue was resolved and Solomon made king, Adonijah was seized with panic, fearing for his life.  We are told, “Adonijah, in fear of Solomon (yare mi-pnei Shlomo), went at once [to the Tent] and grasped the horns of the altar” (I Kings 1:50).  There it says yare mi-pnei, meaning none other than that he feared retribution.

Adonijah was afraid Solomon would seek to take revenge on him and put him to death.  However, various intermediaries and intercessors on Adonijah’s behalf turned to Solomon, saying:  “Adonijah is in awe of King Solomon (yare et ha-melekh Shlomo) and has grasped the horns of the altar” (I Kings 1:51).  These intercessors disguised the truth and presented Adonijah as being in awe of the king, as admiring and esteeming him.

Clearly, this distortion of words was intended to raise Adonijah in Solomon’s esteem and save him from being punished.  Indeed, Solomon fell for this prevarication and responded, “If he behaves worthily, not a hair of his head shall fall to the ground.”  Observe how obsequious diplomacy, wrapped in prevarication, was employed even back then.

Having established this distinction, now we can turn to Jacob’s prayer which we read this week.  Jacob supplicated, “Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I am in awe of him (ki yare anokhi oto), lest he come and strike me down, mothers and children alike” (Gen. 32:12).  In light of the above distinction, we would have expected the text to read, ki yare anokhi mi-menu, “for I am fearful of him,” not “in awe of him,” for Jacob did not admire or esteem Esau.  His fear was not the awe one has before a person of lofty status, rather the fear of retribution; but how could he include such a statement in his prayer?

It seems that the Sages were cognizant of this difficulty, for they said that Jacob’s fear of Esau was not due to Esau being a strong, violent hero, but due to the two positive acts to Esau’s credit.  According to the Sages, “[Jacob] said:  All these years he has been dwelling in the land of Israel; perhaps he will attack me in virtue of his having dwelt in the land of Israel?  All these years he has been duly honoring his parents; perhaps he will attack me in virtue of his having honored his parents?” (Genesis Rabbah, 76.2).

These two commandments, dwelling in the land of Israel and honoring one’s parents, gave Esau supremacy over Jacob, and it was this superior position that Jacob feared and that made him cry out, “Deliver me.”  Jacob’s apprehension of Esau on account of the good deeds to Esau’s credit turned his fear to awesome reverence and appreciation.  Esau had been able to observe these precepts while Jacob himself, dwelling with Laban outside of the land of Israel, had had to forego them.

A similar event occurs in Parashat Hukat.  When the children of Israel approached the land of Israel via the Bashan, King Og of Bashan “with all his people, came out to Edrei to engage them in battle” (Num. 21:33).  Moses, apprehensive about facing this powerful king, became overcome with fear:  “Do not be in awe of him (al tira oto), for I give him and all his people and his land into your hand.  You shall do to him as you did to Sihon king of the Amorites who dwelt in Heshbon.”  Here, too, we can ask why it says al tira oto; should it not have said, al tira mi-menu (“Do not be afraid of him”), insofar as Moses’ yir’ah of Og, we may surmise, was not that of awe, rather that of fearing dire consequences?

From the Talmudic discussion, however, we understand that he indeed was in awe of him and not fearful of retribution.  The Talmud asks: “Why was it that he feared Og while he did not fear Sihon?  Rabbi Johanan citing Rabbi Simeon b. Yohai replied:  From the answer that was given to that righteous man you may understand what was in his mind.  He thought:  Peradventure the merit of our father Abraham will stand him by, for it is said, ‘A fugitive (that was Og) brought the news to Abram the Hebrew’ (Gen. 14:13).”  Og, according to this passage, had treated Abraham well by bringing him tidings that his nephew Lot had been taken captive.  This merit remained to Og’s credit, and Moses, knowing he had this merit, was afraid he might not be able to vanquish him.  Therefore it says that Moses was in awe of him, not fearful of him.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

 
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