Anxiety: Is It (or Is It Not) Serving You?

As this week's Torah portion opens, Jacob is preparing to meet his brother Esau. He isn't certain what the tenor of their reunion will be; after all, the twins had parted on terrible terms many years ago, mostly because of Jacob's own actions. He sends messengers ahead to scout out the situation, and when they report that Esau is coming towards him with an entourage of 400 men, Jacob assumes the worst.

As this week's Torah portion opens, Jacob is preparing to meet his brother Esau. He isn't certain what the tenor of their reunion will be; after all, the twins had parted on terrible terms many years ago, mostly because of Jacob's own actions. He sends messengers ahead to scout out the situation, and when they report that Esau is coming towards him with an entourage of 400 men, Jacob assumes the worst. As the text of Parashat Vayishlach explains (Gen. 32:8-9):

 וַיִּירָ֧א יַעֲקֹ֛ב מְאֹ֖ד וַיֵּ֣צֶר ל֑וֹ וַיַּ֜חַץ אֶת־הָעָ֣ם אֲשֶׁר־אִתּ֗וֹ וְאֶת־הַצֹּ֧אן וְאֶת־הַבָּקָ֛ר וְהַגְּמַלִּ֖ים לִשְׁנֵ֥י מַחֲנֽוֹת: וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אִם־יָב֥וֹא עֵשָׂ֛ו אֶל־הַמַּחֲנֶ֥ה הָאַחַ֖ת וְהִכָּ֑הוּ וְהָיָ֛ה הַמַּחֲנֶ֥ה הַנִּשְׁאָ֖ר לִפְלֵיטָֽה׃

Jacob was greatly frightened; in his anxiety, he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.”

This description of Jacob's fear and anxiety is striking. It's common for the Torah's text to describe biblical figures' actions, but much less common for it to focus on a character's emotional state. Here, not one but two verb phrases focus on Jacob's frame of mind: "vayira ya'akov me'od" and "vayetzer lo," maybe better translated "Jacob was exceedingly afraid and it distressed him" (or "and he made himself anxious"). Jacob's fear of being attacked by his brother is so extreme that it leads him to act decisively, dividing his wives and children, flocks and herds into two camps in the hopes of saving at least some of them.

Today, many of us are familiar with anxiety. I'm sure we all have experienced the physiological symptoms at times -- "butterflies in the stomach," heart pounding, tightness in the throat. From the modern field of psychology, we may also have learned that our anxiety is worth paying attention to; it stems from a conscious or unconscious perception of danger, and sometimes can serve as a helpful warning signal, steering us clear of peril and keeping us safe! That said, we also may have experienced that at other times, fear and anxiety can multiply out of control... and when these emotions become too dominant, they don't always serve us well. Which is it here for Jacob? Is his plan to divide his people and possessions into two camps in anticipation of an attack a brilliant tactic that will ensure the survival of his line, or is it a gross overreaction?

A couple weeks ago, as Covid vaccines were just being approved for children ages 5-11 (hurray!!), I heard a great radio piece on KUOW profiling a child who was afraid of needles. Using coaching from her mother -- a child psychologist -- 11-year-old Caroline explained that she decided to investigate her fear. Using what she labeled "detective thinking," she analyzed and probed her anxiety about getting shots, until her rational brain helped her override an anxiety response that she came to understand wasn't actually keeping her safe as much as getting the Covid vaccine would. (To hear or read the story, click here.)

In the weeks since I heard that radio story, I've been thinking a lot about anxiety and when it does -- and doesn't -- serve us well. The anniversary of Kristallnacht was last week. I've heard many Holocaust survivors tell stories about themselves or their family members having experienced that night of terror, and how the extreme fear and anxiety it produced thankfully prompted them to flee. In these cases, in contrast to the child with the fear of needles, fear and anxiety seem to have served an important -- even life-saving -- function.

I have also been musing on where this leaves us today. As Jews, our anxiety feelers may be more sensitive than most of our American peer groups, based on our historical trauma. And, it can be hard not to feel on high alert when the January 6th attack on the Capitol is being labeled a "Reichstag fire" (in other words, explicitly compared to the Nazi's rise to power in 1920's Germany). Another bit of context is that Nazis have literally been on trial in this country over the last few weeks, as a landmark lawsuit seeks to hold white supremacists and neo-Nazis accountable for the violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. (In fact, closing arguments begin today. To read more about this case and what's happening in court, check out Integrity First for America's website.) One particularly horrifying detail I read yesterday -- from my friend and UVA Jewish historian Jim Loeffler, who is attending and reporting on the trial -- was a quote from a deposition from a former member of Identity Evropa (an alt-white group), who had been told soon after joining: "Welcome to the Alt-Right where the Holocaust never happened and we want it to happen again." This sends chills up my spine.

So which is it today? In this fraught moment, when our fear and anxiety are ticking up -- for some of us on an individual level, and for many of us, collectively, as Jews -- should we lean into our trepidation and act decisively, for example moving into escape mode? Or, is this precisely the time when we need to engage our rational brains to investigate and override our fear, reassuring ourselves that we are in fact safe here now? Unfortunately, when we aren't looking back on history in the rear-view mirror, but rather living through the present in real time, there is usually no simple answer. The signs are ambiguous; when we feel afraid, the best answer may be that both approaches contain some truth, which makes it hard to know how to appropriately calibrate our internal fear-meters and how to best respond to our emotions.

With regard to Jacob, our patriarch and forebear, our Jewish interpretive tradition, too, seems open to living with this ambiguity. In the pshat of the text of Genesis 33:4, Jacob and Esau's reunion -- when it finally happens -- seems to be a tender and emotional one:

"Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept."
וַיָּ֨רָץ עֵשָׂ֤ו לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַֽיְחַבְּקֵ֔הוּ וַיִּפֹּ֥ל עַל־צַוָּארָ֖ו וַׄיִּׄשָּׁׄקֵ֑ׄהׄוּׄ וַיִּבְכּֽוּ׃

In this plain understanding of the text, we might surmise that Jacob's anxiety and fear was overblown, that he need not have worried so much or gone to the length of dividing his people and possessions into two camps. But, the medieval Torah commentators note the unusual dots over the word "vayishakehu" ("and he kissed him") and bring forward a midrashic understanding that this wasn't an ordinary kiss, but rather a subversive expression of Esau's residual anger. Their interpretation runs counter to the plain sense of the text, underscoring the real and present danger and justifying Jacob's anxious response.

Rabbi Na'amah Kelman teaches that there is a Hasidic custom to read this story at the Havdalah service. She wrote (in a 1997 article on Parashat Vayishlach): "By anticipating the confrontation with Esau, we prepare ourselves to face the week ahead with more clarity of thought, more energy, and more humility. In this way, we move our lives forward, taking with us our strengths and leaving behind our fears."

Kein yehi ratzon - so may it be, that reflecting on Jacob's fear and anxiety this week will help us better understand our own emotional responses, and make decisions about our own lives that serve us well.