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What Was Yaakov Afraid Of?

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At the beginning of this week’s parshah we learn that Eisav was coming with 400 men to attack Yaakov and his family. We are told of the many preparations that Yaakov took before this encounter. The pasuk says that Yaakov was very afraid, for as it is written: “vayira Yaakov me’od, vayeitzer lo” (Bereishis 32:8). Rashi tells us that this fear was not for his own life; rather this fear was that he might have to take other people’s lives. In Rashi’s words: “shema yehareg es acheirim.”

Many of the commentators have been bothered by this explanation. The halacha is that if one is chasing another person, he has a status of a rodef and may be killed by anyone. Additionally, there is another halacha that if one is coming to attack you, you may defend yourself and kill him first. So what was Yaakov afraid of? If he would have to kill anyone it would be under one of these permitted conditions. Why the fear?

Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin, zt”l, suggested that Yaakov was aware that if he killed someone it would be permitted. However, he was dually aware that his mother received a nevuah that both of her sons would die on the same day. Yaakov therefore feared that if he killed Eisav, he too would be killed on that day.

There is another explanation brought regarding the wording of Rashi, shema yehareg es acheirim. Perhaps the word acheirim alludes to Rabbi Meir, who is referred to as “Acheirim” in the Mishnah. The Gemara, in Gittin 56b, says that Rabbi Meir was a descendent of Eisav; thus Yaakov was not afraid of killing Eisav per se. Rather, he was afraid of destroying his descendant who would eventually become a great tana.

The Re’aim, the Maharal, and the Levush say that one may only kill a rodef if he has exhausted every other option to prevent the attack. For example, if one can shoot the rodef in the leg and likely prevent death he must do so – and may not kill him. Thus Yaakov was afraid that perhaps he would be able to prevent the attack by other means, but instead kill in such a situation.

However, they then say that this halacha does not apply to the one being attacked; he may kill his pursuer even if he could prevent the attack by other means. They therefore change their explanation to this: perhaps Eisav and his men were only planning to attack Yaakov’s family. Thus Yaakov would only be an outsider witnessing an attack and would thereby be bound by the rule that he must seek other preventative measures before killing the attackers.

Rabbi Akiva Eiger disagrees with this p’shat. He says that the Gemara in Sanhedrin 72a explains why it is that when one breaks into another person’s house the owner is allowed to kill the thief. The Gemara says that there is a chazakah that the thief is aware that a person will put up a fight to keep his money, and consequently knows that there may be a confrontation. As a result, the thief is prepared to kill the owner in the event that a confrontation ensues. This confirms that the thief intended all along to kill the owner of the house. Hence the owner can kill the thief before the thief has a chance to kill him. Rabbi Akiva Eiger says that we can surely apply this chazakah, namely that one will put up a fight when another comes to kill his family. Therefore, the same halacha should apply in this case: Yaakov should be permitted to kill anyone who tries to kill a member of his family, even if he can prevent the attack by other means.

I was wondering what all of these meforshim were referring to when they say that Yaakov was afraid that he would be able to prevent the attack without killing. Why was this possibility such a reality to Yaakov? Generally, when one is coming to attack there is not much that can be done to prevent the attack – aside from killing the attacker.

I believe that the reason why the meforshim assume that Yaakov had this fear is because he knew there was something he could do to stop the attack before it even started. He could send a message to Eisav that he is giving the bechorah and berachos back to him. This would have definitely prevented any bloodshed. Thus Yaakov feared that anyone he would kill would be an unnecessary death. But since he felt that he should not return the bechorah and berachos to Eisav, he prepared for the encounter. Ultimately, though, a battle between the two was averted.

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