Vayeitzei: Overcoming Fear

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The Ladder

How would you respond to this question (from a letter we just received)?

I had plans to visit Israel this month. But with all the latest killings and stabbings happening there, my family is very frightened and pressuring me to cancel our trip. I am an avid viewer of your online classes which consistently offer clear and solid direction, and would deeply appreciate your advice on the matter.

Indeed, wherever we may be, we all face various fears in our lives. “All roads,” says the Talmud, “are assumed dangerous.” How then do you deal with the inherent risks and hazards you encounter on your journeys? Do you retreat, stay put or forge ahead?

With the recent slew of attacks on Jews this dilemma is acutely relevant today in Israel and for Jews anywhere in the world.

The same dilemma, on a less glaring scale, applies to all aspects of life.

Take, for example, a common question may of us ask: Is it worth investing effort to reach great heights when there is always the risk of failing? How many of us avoid trying too hard because our fear of failure?

Have you ever felt that life’s disappointments have broken you to the point of no return? After falling again and again, you simply don’t have the strength to try again – fearing yet another fall. After continual failures, you finally throw up your hands and say the effort to climb is not worth the pain.

A dramatic episode in this week’s Torah portion provides us with an invaluable lesson and method how to deal with fears in face of menacing forces that threaten us. How to develop the courage and fortitude necessary to take on any challenge.

Jacob’s famous dream, in this week’s Torah portion, carries a powerful lesson of hope and confidence – one that can overcome the fear of failure.

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Jacob dreamed and saw a ladder standing on the ground and its top reached up toward heaven. G-d’s angels were ascending and descending on it (this week’s Torah portion, Genesis 28:12).

The Midrash explains that Jacob was shown the rise and fall of future empires that would rule the world. He saw the ascent and descent of the Babylonians, the Medes and the Greeks. But when it came to the Roman Empire (Edom) Jacob only saw their ascent, without any defined time span of their rule. Jacob thus was frightened –perhaps their power will not wane. At that moment G-d said “do not be afraid my servant Jacob,” though the Roman Empire will rise, it will ultimately also fall.

Then G-d invited Jacob to climb the ladder himself. But Jacob was afraid: “Just as the others ultimately descended,” Jacob said, “I fear that I too will fall.” “Suddenly he saw G-d standing over him,” saying, “do not be afraid my servant Jacob, I promise you that if you climb you and your children will not fall.” But Jacob still declined fearing that he was unworthy. Said G-d: “Had you trusted me and climbed you would never have fallen. But since you did not, your children will be ruled by the four empires. But do not be afraid, because at the end these empires will fall and you will finally ascend.” (1)

Everything that happened to the patriarchs [Abraham, Isaac and Jacob] is an indication for their children, (2) to teach us about the future. The patriarchs were shown what would happen to their descendants. (3)

The same is true with Jacob’s ladder:

Throughout the journey of each of our lives, especially as we embark on a new voyage, we will be shown a ladder. As we are ready to undertake a new challenge, we are presented with an opportunity to climb to higher places.

But at the same time we also see how others have climbed and fallen on the ladder of history. Because every ladder goes two ways: up and down.

Therein lies two critical lessons:

When we see our enemy in power with no end in sight, know that his day will come.

But the most important lesson is this: No matter how difficult it may be, we must never be afraid to climb, even if it means the risk of falling.

However, this is easier said than done. Why? Because we are “asleep” – as Jacob slept when he had his dream; and when we are asleep we are unaware of G-d’s presence. Jacob was disturbed when he fell asleep on the Temple Mount: “Surely G-d is in this place and I knew it not.” In this state of spiritual sleep, we do not have the confidence, the strength to overcome challenges. We – due to our own limited sleep consciousness – become part of the problem instead of the solution.

But then we awake, and “suddenly” we see G-d standing over us (“suddenly he saw G-d standing over him”), and reminds us to not be afraid. “I am with you. I will protect you wherever you go and bring you back to this soil. I will not turn aside from you until I have fully kept this promise to you.”

But even when we are “asleep” (or half asleep) we are often shown a vision – a dream of a ladder – upon which the powers of history have been climbing and descending from the beginning of time. And now we are invited to climb the ladder.

By showing us (the Jacob within each of us) this vision we are being prepared – as the original Jacob was prepared – for what is to come, and is giving all of us the tools to face these challenges and prevail.

The message for each of us today is clear:

To face the battles of life you must first fortify your inner life. You must build a strong inner core – a home and family that provides you with the security and confidence to handle any force or enemy from without.

As we face enemies – known or unknown, and especially the worst enemy of all, the enemy of fear and uncertainty – we must build inner security, by waking up and connecting to the Divine.

That will give us the power to climb and climb, and then… climb again.

Thus the answer to the opening question about fears of traveling to Israel: Travel well my friend. See your trip as a journey on Jacob’s ladder — climbing to great heights. Indeed, you are traveling to the place where Jacob walked –as did Abraham and Isaac, and all the generations of Jews. The place where Jacob was first shown the ladder, empowering him and all his descendants to use every experience, even ones that may seem threatening, as a springboard, a ladder to reach the heavens.

So you have nothing to fear.

Make sure to take along your body and your soul. Connect with the spirit of the Holy Land, the land upon which G-d’s casts His gaze and protects from the beginning of the year. Connect with the ladder that binds earth and heaven.

Travel well and celebrate with joy. You’re in the safest place on earth.

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For an elaborate discussion on this topic, please go here to view Rabbi Jacobson’s latest class.

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(1) Midrash Tanchuma beginning of this week’s portion. Vayikra Rabba 29:2. Shemos Rabba 32:7.
(2) Midrash Tanchuma Lech Lecho 9. Bereishis Rabba 40:6.
(3) Ramban Lech Lecho 12:6. Bechayei on this week’s portion 28:12.

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fear
5 years ago

It is incumbent upon each of us to achieve a clarity/discernment that what we fear and perceive are based in reality. One could say that the purpose of the Torah is to enable us to achieve this clarity and not be ensnared by our emotions.

There is an old saying: feelings are not facts. There are numerous examples given in the Torah, where we are shown to have the capacity to overcome grief or sudden challenges and to be able to act anyway. Essentially, it is about having mastery and owning our emotions, rather than the other way around.

Your interlocutor has to look at the circumstances versus his feelings about them. He needs to look at what he is fearing and whether his fear is reality based. If he comes up with a convincing
case to himself that he in fact is in danger then there is no shame or cowardice impugned. The answer lies within.

5 years ago

At age 20 I volunteered to Israel during the Yom Kippur war. I was assigned to work in a kibbutz near the Syrian border. I never felt safer.

Richard R
5 years ago

We have been to Israel multiple times and have always enjoyed the trips. We were there during the second intifada when most Jews in the diaspora stayed home because they were afraid to visit, We had a great time! The only folks we noted that were visiting were Christian tour groups and Asians. American and European Jews stayed home. The traffic was wonderful. No crowds. The easiest trip I have experienced.My brother in law who now lives in Ashkelon said that when he reads the news, he is afraid to visit NY.So, while there are and always will be issues, go and enjoy!

Carol
5 years ago

I would have taken a different approach to answering the question. What is the actual risk? Reminds me of people who wouldnt fly after 9/11. The number of people who die on commercial airline flights is such a fraction of the millions of fly, that it was irrational. Same applies here. Its more dangerous to get in a car, or eat a hamburger, yet people ignore the threats of those. Number one cause of death in western countries is heart disease, yet so many people are obese.