Overcoming Fear

Posted On Dec 24, 2011 / 5772

“Disappointment is a much more fertile ground for spiritual practice than dreams,” teaches yoga guru Saradananda, and while the dreams of Parashat Mi-ketz offer plenty of fodder for spiritual musings, it is ultimately the disappointment of an old father that guides our spiritual practice this week.

Parashat Mi-ketz is the heart of the Joseph story, but it is also a story about Jacob growing old. He is, when we first see him this week, still strong and full of confident authority, assessing the severity of the famine and directing his sons to procure food from Egypt (Gen. 42:1–2). But as the boys return home with the bad news that Simeon has been detained in Egypt and that they were set up to appear as thieves, we see that this is just a façade. Jacob berates them and is full of self-pity: “It is always me you bereave . . . These things always happen to me!” (Gen. 42:36). He then refuses to send Benjamin into Egypt, for “if he meets with disaster on the journey you are taking, you will send my white head down to Sheol in grief” (Gen. 42:38).

What happened to that confident young man who impulsively extorted Esau’s birthright and conned his father into blessing him as the firstborn? Even just a few chapters ago, we watched with bated breath as he lined up his family and fortune to face his grown brother-nemesis in a carefully calculated balance of tactical strength and defensive strategy. These images are snapshots from an earlier phase in Jacob’s life, the phase before he lost his beloved Rachel and favored Joseph. The Jacob we encounter in Mi-ketz has suffered the heartbreak of devastating loss, and although he retains strains of his formerly take-charge, confident self, he is paralyzed with the fear of sustaining such loss again.

Rabbi Miriyam Glazer, in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, writes that “the very notion of ‘closure’ for grief is an illusion.” We grieve and life marches on, and so we put one foot in front of another and face another day. But like Jacob we are fundamentally changed. And like Jacob, when we find ourselves in another situation that evokes deep fear—of loss, betrayal, or other pain—we resist.

What happens, though, when the time comes to take some action that is terrifying to the very core? Like Jacob we are often faced with being in a situation we had no intention of ever being in. “The famine in the land was severe” (Gen. 43:1), and having run out of their Egyptian rations, Jacob and his family are faced with starvation. Jacob instructs his sons to “go again and procure some food for us” (ibid.), and when Judah reminds him that such a journey can be successful only with Benjamin in tow, Jacob responds with blame: “Why did you serve me so ill as to tell the man that you had another brother?” (Gen. 43:6). Judah defends their actions and pushes his father to recognize the corner he’s in. Ultimately Jacob acquiesces, and his response is the beginning of our spiritual lesson: “If it must be so, do this,” he begins (Gen. 43:11), and he goes on to outline a full plan to soften the Egyptian authority with gifts. He concludes with a prayer that God should have mercy on them, and then a final note of resignation: “As for me, if I am to be bereaved, I shall be bereaved” (Gen. 43:14).

The psychologists of our community could identify the stages of Jacob’s decision-making here: first resistance, then blame, then resignation bolstered with a plan that offers the illusion of control in a situation completely out of one’s control, followed by a prayer—the acknowledgment of just how out-of-control the situation is—and finally: “k’asher shakhalti shakholti“: “If I am to be bereaved, I shall be bereaved.”

The phrasing recalls the voice of Esther, and the parallel is striking. Like Jacob, she is stuck in a situation she had no intention of being in and desperately wants to avoid. Like Jacob, she first resists reality but is convinced of having no choice by someone close to her who is affected by the situation at hand (Mordecai). Like Jacob, she formulates a plan to make her feel more in control (three days of communal fasting), and finishes with resignation to the pain she may suffer: “ka’asher avad’ti, avad’ti“: “If I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16 and previous). How deeply human a response: to resist, to furtively plan, to finally resign.

So what are the emotional triggers of resignation, a resignation that enables one to move past fear and to act? Rashbam and Ramban—both of whom note the linguistic parallels of these two texts—offer two different answers. Rashbam understands Jacob’s “if I am bereaved, I am bereaved” as his way of saying, “I’ll take my chances; what will be, will be.” It is a resignation born of total lack of control over the outcome. For him, the lesson is that we face life’s challenges and scariest moments by taking a deep breath and acknowledging how little control we have, and by embracing uncertainty as a fact of life.

Ramban sees it differently. He understands the phrase as rooted in Jacob’s heartbreak: “Jacob is saying that you can no longer add to my bereavement as I am already bereaved. He thus consoled himself about everything that came upon him by his great suffering for Joseph.” In this read, heartbreak makes us stronger; it enables us to dig deep within to console ourselves and face life’s challenges by knowing how much we have already survived and how strong we are to handle whatever comes next.

Rabbi Glazer suggests that life offers only “the tentative recognition that our anguish is endurable, that—despite ourselves—life goes on and engages us with new emotions, new situations and images, new challenges and changes.” In the middle of a story about dreams and happy endings, the glimpse at Jacob facing difficult situations with a broken heart reminds us of words uttered by the philosopher Bertrand Russell: “To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.”

The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.