Ya’akov Avinu was very fearful of his impending meeting with his brother Eisav (BeReishit 32:10-13). While it is true that Eisav was approaching with an army, and Eisav had good reason to be mad at his brother, the Midrash (BeReishit Rabbah 76:2) relates that Ya’akov’s fear was grounded in the merit of Eisav’s outstanding fulfillment of the Mitzvah of Kibbud Av, in honoring his father Yitzchak during the twenty years Ya’akov spent with Lavan. This is difficult to understand, since Ya’akov surely had much more merit from all the other Mitzvot that he was able to fulfill while he was with Lavan than did Eisav. Perhaps, something else contributed to Ya’akov’s fear.
We are familiar with how Ya’akov and Eisav cry when they finally meet (33:4). According to Rashi (ad loc. s.v. VaYishakeihu), they were crying from the joy of seeing each other. However, according to the well-known Aggadah (BeReishit Rabbah 78:9), Eisav tried to bite Ya’akov Avinu; Ya’akov’s neck miraculously turned to marble, causing both Ya’akov and Eisav to cry from pain. Rav Efraim Wachsman once recounted to us the following explanation which he heard from his Zeide. Rav Wachsman’s Zeide explained that both opinions are correct: We go through periods in history when the descendants of Eisav attempt to wipe us out of existence, God forbid, and also periods when they attempt to kiss us and assimilate us out of existence (also God forbid). The Holocaust ended only nine years before I was born. My extended family lost many relatives and the Jewish people as a whole lost six million people. Yet today, only a generation or two later, American Jews have been welcomed and integrated into every segment of society. There are Jewish businessmen, professors, lawyers, senators, actors, and sportsmen. We have been welcomed into every profession. On two recent occasions, Jews have even run for president.
Perhaps Ya’akov Avinu’s fear was grounded in the insight offered by Rav Wachsman’s Zeide. The Sifrei (Devarim 26:5) records how we were “Metzuyanim,” or “outstanding” (i.e. successful) while enslaved in Egypt. We had integrated into Egyptian society to a point where, during the crossing of the Red Sea, the angels were able to accuse us of being no better than our Egyptian tormentors in terms of being Ovedei Avodah Zarah, idol-worshippers. Ya’akov Avinu feared that now that he was closer geographically to the bad influence of his brother Eisav, he would not be able to prevent his family from adopting Eisav’s customs, and perhaps this is why Ya’akov cried. Similarly, we need to remember that we are only guests in lands outside of Eretz Yisrael and must hold ourselves to higher standards than those around us. We must be wary of the fruits of assimilation, and we must apply the adage of the Midrash Tanchuma (Balak 22:12), “Lo MeiUktsach VeLo MeiDuvshach,” “We want neither your stings nor your honey.” Thus, Rav Wachsman’s Zeide recommended that Jews, as guests, should play cautious roles in the political, economic, and social arenas.