“Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?”
“That is the only time a man can be brave.”
In the first chapter of “Game of Thrones,” Ned Stark responds to his son’s question about the relationship between fear and bravery. One leads to the other. All throughout literature, history and pop culture there are myriad examples of people and characters showing bravery in the face of fear: Frodo volunteering to carry the One Ring to Mordor, and in the real world, Malala Yousafzai speaking out against the Taliban and Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus.
In each of these examples, the people (or character) involved knew the risks of what they were doing. They knew it was possible, or even likely, for them to be attacked, hurt, or even killed. Yet they persisted. They knew they were doing what was right, and what was necessary. They chose to be brave.
In parshat Vayishlach, Jacob is returning to Canaan after working for Laban for 20 years and amassing family and wealth. As he neared Canaan, he knew he would soon encounter his brother Esau, from whom he had stolen their father’s blessing. Jacob sent emissaries ahead to see how Esau would respond to Jacob returning, and their report frightened Jacob severely: “The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, ‘we came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.’” (Gen 32:7). In Biblical times, 400 men represented an army battalion ready to fight. Esau was coming to kill Jacob.
How did Jacob respond? In a panic, he split his family and possessions in half, he prayed to God to survive the encounter, and he sent a messenger after messenger with gifts to Esau in hopes of appeasing him. That night, he and his family crossed the river to where they would meet Esau the next morning, and Jacob returned alone to the other side. Jacob had not yet shown bravery, he was still letting his fear overwhelm him.
In fact, several commentators suggested Jacob was so afraid of Esau that he intended to run away when he remained alone on the other side of the river, which is why God sent an angel to wrestle with him and make sure he stayed and chose bravery. That interaction gave Jacob clarity, that he couldn’t run away from his fears, he needed to face them head on. If he could wrestle with the divine, earning the new name Yisrael (one who wrestles with God), he could face his brother.
The next morning, Yisrael set out across the river and saw with his own eyes Esau and his 400 men, his army, coming for him. Yisrael was still afraid, yet he chose to be brave and do what was right, even if he was afraid. Yisrael walked out in front of all his possessions, his servants, and his family. He walked out alone to try to make amends, brother to brother, for the mistakes he made over 20 years earlier. He did the right thing, even though he was afraid.
Our country and our world are at a crossroads. We do not always know what is coming next, or how our lives and our world will change in the next weeks, months, and years. It is only natural to fear what we do not and cannot know. All we can do, is be like Jacob: we can confront our fears, embrace them, and choose to be brave as we do the right thing. May you all be blessed with the courage to embrace your fears and continue to move forward beyond them.