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Yaakov engages with his brother Esav in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Vayishlach. The Pirkei diRebbe Eliezer (chapter 37) depicts the unhinged personality of Esav: “When Yaakov went to enter the land of Canaan, Esav came to meet him from Har Seir, fuming with great rage, to kill him as it says, “The wicked man plots against the righteous and gnashes his teeth at him” (Tehillim 37:12). Esav said, I will not kill my brother with bow and arrow, rather I will kill him with my mouth and suck out his blood, as it says “Esav ran to meet him and he hugged him and fell on his neck, and kissed him, and cried” (Breishis 33:4). Don’t read the word as וישקהו, and he kissed him, but rather וישכהו, and he bit him. However [miraculously], Yaakov’s neck turned hard as bone and blunted Esav’s teeth.
The beginning of this chapter in Pirkei diRebbe Eliezer quotes a pasuk in Amos (5:19) to explain Yaakov’s escape from Lavan but into the clutches of Esav: “As if a man flees from the lion and the bear meets him…” The lion is Lavan who ran after Yaakov to take his life. The bear is Esav who was standing on the road like an agitated bear coming to kill a mother with her children. The lion has feelings of shame, but a bear feels no shame. Yaakov got up and prayed before Hashem saying, ‘Master of the World didn’t you tell me to go back to the land of your forefathers, and where you were born, and I will be with you? But my brother Esav now comes to kill me and he is not afraid of You, and I am afraid of him.’ From here they say don’t be afraid of police or a ruler, rather from a person who does not fear Hashem and stands up against you on the road like an agitated bear to kill a mother with her children. The Beur Maspik explains that Lavan had shame before Hashem, for he said to Yaakov ‘And the G-d of your father…you shall watch yourself from talking with Yaakov good or bad’ (Breishis perek 31). Lavan was frightened from what Hashem told him in a dream. Accordingly, Chaza”l says that one who feels shame won’t be quick to sin but Esav did not have any fear of G-D before his eyes at all. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
In the Pesach Hagada we read “Come and learn what Lavan the Arami tried to do to our father Yaakov. While Pharoah decreed only against the males, Lavan desired to uproot all. For so it is written, ‘An Arami sought to destroy my father; and he went down to Egypt and dwelled there, a handful, few in number. There he became a nation, great, mighty, and numerous.” We see from here that Lavan was worse that Pharaoh in a sense because he wanted to wipe out the entire family and there would never have been a Jewish nation. But Pharaoh, despite all the terrible and torturous decrees he made, would at most only have wiped out the Jewish males. Furthermore, Lavan is referred in the Torah as a fraudster; he is unpredictable, constantly devising plots to undermine his fellow, in this case Yaakov. So wasn’t Yaakov concerned at least as much, if not more, about Lavan than about Esav? As with Esav, it can be seen pretty blatantly his wrath and intent, but Lavan could double cross him and he might not even realize it?
It would seem, though, that because Lavan had this shame, some level of moral decency, that it put him in check and was easier to deal with. But Esav, having a lack of care and decency for anything, was a totally unhinged character, unpredictable, and that is why Yaakov was afraid of him, and needed to reinforce his proper faith and trust in Hashem, which he eventually did, by praying to Hashem to save him from his brother and then setting up a strategic plan of splitting his family up into two camps and giving gifts to Esav in order to appease him.
This isn’t just about people who are G-D fearing or not G-D fearing, although that happened to have been the major difference between Lavan and Esav. Though one wouldn’t exactly call Lavan G-D fearing, he at least recognized that one doesn’t mess with Hashem if He comes to you in a dream. However, from the fact that the Ralbag extends this to any ruler or policeman, not just a Jew, it must mean that there is a fundamental difference between someone who has shame and one who is not shameful at all. From the fact that the medrish compares a ruler or policeman to one who does not fear Hashem would seem to mean that just having a sense of law and order, living by the rule of law as a policeman or a ruler does, gives them at least the potential ability to be more attuned to fear of G-D, even if they don’t outwardly express any connection to religion but when faced with the opportunity as Lavan was, they would more relate to subjugating themselves to the will of G-D. They have the moral decency and more of a chance to feel ashamed if they break the rules they live by and enforce. Whereas a person who is lawless and doesn’t care about the law at all, has no shame and is crazily unhinged, He won’t ever be ashamed and fear Hashem with his current attitude, no matter how blatant and obvious the messages are being sent his way. That is a reason to be worried and afraid of that type of person, versus the police or a ruler.
Lavan was a chieftain, a ruler of Aram, and even though he was a scam artist he at least had some moral decency and on some level even a fear of Hashem that kept him in check. So Yaakov felt he was able to deal with Lavan, whereas Esav was a totally unhinged person with no shame, and certainly no fear of Hashem, so he was totally unpredictable and that is why Yaakov was rightfully afraid of him.