Jacob’s response to his dream of the ladder is fear: “And he was afraid and he said, how awesome is this place” (Genesis 28:17). The sages explain that Jacob’s dream is connected to the site of the Temple on Mount Moriah (as Rashi explains at length). At the Binding of Isaac, which unfolded in the same place, God (by means of the angel) says to Abraham, “Now I know that you fear God” (Genesis 22:12).
But God responds to Jacob’s fear with calming words and a promise: “Behold, I am with you, and I will safeguard you wherever you go.” This echoes the statement repeated in the prophecies of both Isaiah and Jeremiah “Do not fear, my servant Jacob.” Indeed, the sages connect these two statements, God’s calming words and the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah. The midrash explains that the angels Jacob saw in his dream ascending and descending were the ministering angels of the nations of the world. History is a long series of ascents and descents of nations and empires. But, when Jacob saw the ministering angel of Edom in his dream, he ascended but then, unlike the other angels of the other nations, he did not descend but continued to ascend, “At that moment,” says the midrash, “Jacob was fearful and said, ‘Perhaps this (angel) will never descend.’ The Holy Blessed One said to him, ‘And you, do not fear, my servant Jacob and do not be alarmed Israel’. Even if it seems to you that he is ascending until he reaches Me, it is from there I will bring him down.”
Saturday Night Song
The expression “Do not fear, my servant Jacob” became the refrain of a well-known liturgical song sung on Saturday night, after the Shabbat has departed. Chassidut explains that after Shabbat has departed, fear may take over. When the Shabbat descends upon us, God spreads a tabernacle of peace over us. Throughout the entire Shabbat, we bask in its comforting shadow, a taste of the world to come. But immediately after Shabbat, when the extra soul leaves us to our weekly troubles, we feel the dark night outside and we may fear the difficult weekdays ahead—days bereft of a feeling of revealed Divine sanctity.
This is exactly how Jacob feels when he leaves the Land of Israel. He sets out from Be’er Sheva (Sheva means ‘seven’)—similar to the seventh day and he arrives at a dark place. The special angels of the Land of Israel who protected him leave him and are replaced by angels of the lands outside Israel, who are on a lower level. Jacob needs a special promise, “Behold I am with you” and you have nothing to fear.”
Jacob was fleeing his brother. But he was also on a positive mission—to build his own home, the “House of Israel,” and to uplift all that could possibly be elevated from his encounter with Laban. So too, on Saturday night, when we sing “Do not fear, My servant Jacob” we prepare to confidently go out into the weekdays and successfully perform the weekday service of clarifying and uplifting mundane reality.
Fear only God
Jacob’s fear is the fear the nation of Israel has when confronted with the long years of impending exile. “And Jacob went out” to the bitter exile, to suffer under the yoke of different kingdoms, troubles and genocides. The most frightening part of it all is that not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. The threatening angel ascends and ascends on the ladder and we feel so small and weak. But do not fear: “And you, do not fear, My servant Jacob," says God "and do not be alarmed, Israel, for behold I will save you from afar.”
The many generations that spent their lives in exile have a most important role to play. They must remain committed to positive actions, with optimism and joy
How do we overcome fear? With fear of Heaven. When the Ba’al Shem Tov was a small boy, his elderly father, Rabbi Eliezer, passed away. Before he died, he said to his son: “Yisrulik, love every Jew and do not fear anything except God.”
This guidance, which should accompany us from a tender age, is explained in-depth in various Chassidic teachings. The abridged version is that when a feeling of fear is aroused within us, we must sweeten it. We have to understand that all the fears in the world are actually fallen fears; fears that have broken off from the only true fear a person should have in life: fear of Heaven (yirat shamayim). When we bear in our hearts that we should fear only God, all the other fallen fears melt away. Fear of God is a very sweet fear, for God is standing over us, promising that He is watching over us. God desires only the very best for us.
With this sweet fear, Jacob sweetens the fear that erupts in him as he is about to leave the land of Israel and embark on his journey into exile—to Haran and to Laban’s house. He does so by revealing and amplifying his deep fear of Heaven, “And he was fearful and he said how awesome is this place… this is the gate of Heaven.” Thus, “Do not fear, My servant Jacob.”
We too are tasked with doing the same in every generation. Elevating and amplifying our fear of Heaven in order to sweeten all other fears we may have.