“And behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will return you to this land; for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken concerning you.” (Breishit 28:15)
When Yaakov leaves Eretz Yisrael and escapes to his Uncle Lavan in Haran, Hashem appears to Yaakov in the famous dream with the ladder. At the very moment that Yaakov heads to chutz la’aretz – and just as the angels of Eretz Yisrael are replaced by the angels of chutz la’aretz (see Rashi on Breshit 28:12) – Yaakov receives an ironclad promise from Hashem that he will eventually return to Eretz Yisrael, safe and sound.
Thus, it is difficult to understand why Yaakov Avinu fears his upcoming encounter with Esav. Why does he get upset when Esav threatens him but not when Lavan pursues him?
The Gemara (BT Sanhedrin 98b) states:
“R’ Yaakov bar Idi asked: It is written, ‘Behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go.’ (Breishit 28:15) But it is [also] written, ‘Yaakov became very frightened, and it distressed him.’ (Breishit 32:8) Because he was afraid lest the sin cause [him to lose this protection].”
Yet, the Gemara does not specify which sin this was.
In order to better understand this Gemara, let us examine the context. Earlier on the same page (Ibid), Rabah declared:
“May [Mashiach] come but may I not see him!”
In other words, Rabah feared something which will take place when Mashiach comes.
The Gemara explains:
“Abaye said to Rabah, ‘What is the reason [that you fear Mashiach’s arrival]? Is it because of the pangs of Mashiach? But the Braita teaches: “R’ Elazar was asked by his students, ‘What can a person do to be saved from the pangs ofMashiach?’ [And R’ Elazar replied,] ‘One should occupy oneself with Torah and gemilut chassadim (acts of loving kindness).’” And the master (i.e. Rabah) is [the epitome of] Torah and gemilut chassadim!’”
Abaye, Rabah’s loyal student, could not understand why Rabah feared Mashiach’s arrival. After all, Rabah had no reason to be afraid of the potential torment, because Rabah’s Torah and gemilut chassadim would surely save him from any suffering.
The Gemara continues with Rabah’s response:
“[Rabah] said to [Abaye], ‘Lest the sin cause [me to lose the protection I may have earned.]’”
Once again, we are confronted with the same nameless sin.
The Gemara then cites R’ Yaakov bar Idi’s aforementioned statement and quotes a second Braita:
“‘May dread and fear befall them, at the greatness of Your arm may they become as still as stone; until Your nation passes through, Hashem’ (Shmot 15:16) – This is the First Entering [of Bnei Yisrael into Eretz Yisrael]. ‘Until this nation You have acquired passes through.’ (Ibid) – This is the Second Entering [of Bnei Yisrael into Eretz Yisrael]. Say then from now that [Bnei] Yisrael deserved to have a miracle performed for them during the Second Entering as in the First Entering. However, the sin caused [them to lose this miracle].”
Finally, we can understand the nature of this menacing sin, which rears its head when the Gemara discusses returning to Eretz Yisrael – especially as a means of advancing the Redemption. Clearly, the sin involves dwelling outside of Eretz Yisrael. During the time of Ezra (the “Second Entering”), only a minority of the nation made aliyah to Eretz Yisrael; most Jews remained in Babylonia. According to the Gemara, their preference for the good life in chutz la’aretz and their reluctance to return to Eretz Yisrael at the first possible opportunity constitutes a “sin”. The Second Redemption should have been as dramatic as the Exodus from Egypt. But because of this sin, the process adhered to the laws of nature, and everything happened slowly and with much difficulty.
In contrast, Rabah, who was a great tzadik (righteous man), would certainly not be attracted to worldly comforts. Nevertheless, he was concerned that he would become engrossed in serving Hashem in the Diaspora. He feared that he would be so busy collectingnitzotzot (literally, “sparks”) and dedicating himself to his important spiritual work in chutz la’aretz that he would not realize that the time had come to leave and head for Eretz Yisrael.
Similarly, after spending twenty-two years with his uncle in chutz la’aretz, Yaakov worries that his stay has been overly long. Admittedly, he has occupied his time collecting nitzotzot – such as Rachel and Leah and his considerable wealth. Yet, perhaps he has lingered more than neccessary, and therefore, Yaakov is afraid. Moreover, Esav has spent the duration faithfully performing the mitzvah of yeshivat Eretz Yisrael (dwelling in Eretz Yisrael), and as a result, Yaakov’s fear increases.
“I have sojourned with Lavan, and I have tarried until now.” (Breishit 32:5)
Yaakov fears that this tarrying will cost him his life. Hence, he takes practical steps to prepare for the upcoming encounter and does not rely on miracles. He adheres to the laws of nature and moves slowly and with much difficulty. He softens the enemy, prays with devotion, and prepares for the worst.
We must always remember that everything – including our sojourns in the Diaspora – has an objective. Yet, once this objective has been achieved, it is time for the Redemption. As the Vilna Gaon tearfully beseeched his students, in a trembling voice:
“Do not tarry beyond the appointed time!”