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He may have just had a lot going on to be afraid about however almost every time we encounter Yaakov he is either nervous or concerned that something bad may happen.

By the berachos with getting caught (Bereishis 27).

When leaving for Charan he is reassured by God that he'll be protected until returning and responds with "should that happen and you'll be my God / then you'll be my God etc" (ibid 28).

Upon returning and meeting Esav (ibid 32).

When Shimon and Levi destroy Shechem (ibid 34).

When the brothers are grazing the flocks at Shechem (ibid 37).

When Binyamin needs to be sent to Mitzrayim (ibid 43).

HaShem reassures him on the way down to Mitzrayim telling him that he needn't be fearful (ibid 46).

He asks sons to bury him in mearas hamachpelah even though he already had Yosef swear to that effect (ibid 49).

The Talmud says that the fear from Esav—despite his having been promised safe return—was due to Yaakov's fear of sin potentially undoing the prophecy (Bavli berachos 4a).

Rambam proves from there that personal prophecies for good aren't guaranteed if the person sours (hakdamah to mishnah)—as opposed to prophecies for good for a group.

On the other hand Rambam asserts that Yaakov was overly fearful with regard to Esav (shemoneh perakim chapter 7).

So which is it—was Yaakov reasonably concerned for sin ruining his fortune or was he unnecessarily fearful without good cause?

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Thanks for the great question! Many commentaries criticise Yaacov for his fear. For example, this Radak on Bereshit 32:26 says it was a sin* for which he was punished:

היה לו זה מאת האל להיות בו זה לאות לפי שהיה פושע במחשבתו אחר כמה הבטחות אשר עשה עמו האל מדה כנגד מדה להיות פוסח בגופו; כי אע"פ שהיה בוטח באל בכל לבו אלא שחשב שמא יגרום החטא, אעפ"כ אחר כמה הבטחות לא היה לו להרהר ולחוש לעשו ולקראו כמה פעמים אחי ולשלוח לו מנחה גדולה ולהשתחות לו כמה פעמים, ובזה חטא, ושלם לו האל בזה העולם ולקה בגופו עונש מחשבת

This [the limping] was a sign from G’d, a reprisal of a kind, for the doubts he had expressed about the various promises G’d had made him. G’d now punished him by making him unable to rely on parts of his body that he was in the habit of relying on. True, Yaakov trusted G’d with all his heart, but he was in a constant state of worry that the promises he had received would not come true due to some sin he had committed. Considering that G’d’s promise had been repeated on different occasions, proving that in the interval Yaakov had not forfeited his claim to them, he should no longer have doubted that G’d would not keep His promise for whatever reason. His servile behaviour towards Esau, including the many times he called him adoni, “my lord,” implied a lack of trust in the validity of G’d’s promises to him. Neither should he have sent him such an elaborate gift, nor should he have prostrated himself before him repeatedly. By doing so he committed a sin and G’d punished him in this life by afflicting his body, retribution already for planning to do this. [borrowed Eli Munk's translation]

To understand why this was a sin, let's look at the Dor Hamidbar. In Bamidbar 14:22, Hashem accuses Benei Yisrael for testing Him 10 times. It beggars belief that our holy ancestors who just witnessed Hashem's loving redemption from Egypt would turn out to be such childish, petty moaners about things like meat, ch'v.

They were not. They were following in Yaacov's ways. Yaacov is famous for saying:

קטנתי מכל החסדים ומכל־האמת אשר עשית את־עבדך

I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant

and these "moaners" were actually his children, following in his ways in feeling unworthy. They genuinely believed that they didn't deserve any more "favours" from Hashem, after all the wonders in Egypt. Therefore, like their Saba Yaacov, they believed that now they had used up all their merits, they were in grave danger of running out of food, water etc. in the desert, and wouldn't dare to expect Hashem to provide it.

That sounds very noble, so why does Hashem call it a test? Here's the answer:

Hashem said:

אנכי ה' אלקיך

I am Hashem, your God

"I am yours", He said, and we just couldn't believe it! This disbelief may have come out of our humility, gratitude and recognition of Hashem's greatness, which are praiseworthy traits in us. Still, by not trusting that Hashem really means it, we were committing a sin, which led to us doing what people often do when they are first married and have just made eternal commitment to eachother: we tested Him to see if He really meant it. We wondered deep down: if we were to make a Golden Calf, would He still be ours? Once we really felt comfortable that He meant it, we were able to relax and stop testing Him.

Once we factor that Hashem seeks a relationship with us, one that He Himself wants and initiates, which arises from His own true love and desire - a righteous and faithful relationship of belonging, intimacy, closeness and yichud - we can intuitively see why this is a sin. Trust is a vital requirement for a close, intimate relationship, and distrust damages it greatly. It is also very hurtful. If one party in a relationship is convinced their partner doesn't love them really, and He is constantly weighing their merits against their demerits, with His love, favours and promises all contingent on the scale being on the side of merit, then there is something that needs correcting in this relationship, to say the least.


I hope I've made my point clear, now, although I could continue writing. I don't think I can make a short summary of the above, I recommend it be read and contemplated in full. I understand some might still ask (with mefarshim to back them up) that sin does lead to punishment. Indeed, but it wouldn't be on topic to deal with that in this question.

* on his level, at least

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  • Is there a remedy for this problem if someone sees this same shortcoming in themselves?
    – zunior
    Dec 21, 2023 at 23:45
  • @zunior I don't know, it's very hard. Like anything, recognising the problem goes a long way. Torah cures all, and specifically recalling the tests, and the fact He never left, and trying to absorb that b'pnimi. I mean, He said "let me get rid of this people" - threatened divorce - and then... didn't leave us. He means it, He's ours. Forever, just like the people in our life that we test, r'l. Studying Bitachon, and improving our own character with trustworthiness is also important. Halachta bi'drachav, being kind, doing mitzvot and refraining from sin. It all helps in all our relationships.
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Dec 21, 2023 at 23:59
  • @zunior Sure, there is. It's growing in Bitachon. en.wikisource.org/wiki/…: Dec 26, 2023 at 4:14
  • And should probably note that feeling undeserving of the ones we have relationships with is not a bad trait in and of itself, as it can produce gratitude and appreciation, and is generally a wonderful trait
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Jan 9 at 18:07
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Perhaps they aren't contradictory.

If sin can cause bad things to occur then logically we should always be fearful of bad things happening.

It must be that so long as we try to live righteously then unless we know that we did a real no-no we can rightfully proceed with confidence and optimism.

If someone is fearful despite living ethically we would rightfully term such a person anxious and nervous.

The gemara is explaining how it was possible for Yaakov to have been afraid despite having been promised that it'll be ok, explaining that sin can undo a prophecy for good, with Rambam accepting that in his introduction to the Mishnah.

In Shemoneh Perakim Rambam is focusing on why Yaakov was afraid, despite his living an exemplary life and having been given a divine promise that all would be ok, reasonably concluding that Yaakov must have been a nervous type and therefore suspected the worse.

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Yaakov is often nervous because he makes the wrong choices or his family makes the wrong choices.

Jacob steals his brothers birthright and flees his household in fear.

Jacob takes his two wives with a bunch of goats and wealth without telling their father.

Jacob meets the brother he wronged and obviously is scared over it. But when he finally meets Esau he repairs the relationship and no longer lives in fear of his brother.

When his sons butcher Schechem he knows this was wrong and has a lot of fear over it.

Belief in God is not enough to keep you safe in the Bible. Abraham went to war to save his nephew lot and was victorious. He blessed God for this victory and believed God was on his side. This is one of the reasons Abraham is able to so boldly argue with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham knows Lot and his whole family is down there, and Abraham assumes they are righteous because God has already helped Abraham rescue Lot before. But in the end scripture shows us that no one in Lot's family was actually righteous. Bad things came for all of them. And Jacob knows this as well, that by acting badly then bad things tend to come as a result.

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