Fear and the Jewish Way

Image: Piranhas. Image by Reimand Bertrams, via pixabay.com.

It’s beginning to seem like there is always a shooting in the news, or a bombing, or some other terrifying event. It seems like there is meanness everywhere. CNN reports “BREAKING NEWS” and we brace ourselves for something bad.

Judging from the combo of CNN, NextDoor.com, and Twitter, I should be afraid of:

  • Mentally ill men with guns
  • ISIS inspired terrorists with guns, knives, or trucks
  • Cops
  • Donald Trump
  • Hillary Clinton
  • Antisemites
  • Pit bulls
  • Black Lives Matter activists
  • Mosquitos
  • Global Warming
  • Rapists
  • Robbers
  • and Strange People Driving Around the Neighborhood

All of those are in one of my feeds or another just today.

Jewish tradition offers an alternative. We see the beginnings of it on the beach at the Red Sea:

As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”

Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. – Exodus 14:10-15

The Israelites are terrified of the Egyptians. Moses tells them not to be afraid, that God will take care of them. God says to Moses, “Quit crying and praying – get going!” The miracle comes only after the Israelites move to save themselves.

The refrain “Al tira-oo!” [Do not be afraid] appears regularly in the Bible. According to Maimonides, this is actually one of the 613 commandments. We are commanded not to fear.

In fact, there is only one fear permitted to us: fear of God. Yirat Adonai – fear of the Holy One – is considered a virtue. Any other fear borders on idolatry, because we are commanded not to fear anything but God.

“But rabbi!” I can hear some of you saying to the computer screen, “Antisemitism! ISIS! Scary men in cars! SPIDERS!!!” And all I can say to that is, “Yes.”

The world is full of things that scare us. Jews have always had to deal with plenty of scary people. Our ancestor Abraham was so scared of two different kings that he swore his wife Sarah was his sister! Isaac did the same thing. Every time it got them into trouble. Every time it did them no good at all.

In Egypt, it was Pharaoh. Fearing Pharaoh did not get us out from under his thumb. Fearing God got us out of Egypt. Fearing God propelled us across the wilderness, to the edge of the Land, where Moses sent in the spies, who brought us back more scary news:

So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. 33 And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” – Numbers 13: 32-33

… and back we went to the wilderness to learn to fear God, not anyone else. Many centuries later, brave men and women settled the land of Israel again, and again there were scary things: war, and terrorism, and evil dictators flinging SCUD missiles. And again, the smart thing to do is to not be afraid: al tira-oo!

Al tira-oo: Do not be afraid.

Al tira-oo: Do not let your fears dictate to you.

Al tira-oo: Feel the fear, and go right on walking in the right path.

It’s the Jewish way. There will always be a shooting in the news, or a bombing, or some other terrifying event. There will always be someone happy to sell us fear in exchange for advertising revenue or power. It is up to us to choose whom or what we will worship.

Beha’alotecha: “When You Ascend”

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Once upon a time, thirteen years ago this month, a certain rabbi was in Jerusalem to attend the World Zionist Congress. While he was there he met one of his students for lunch. The student had been in Israel only two weeks, but she had already begun to fear that she had made a terrible mistake.  She had broken up housekeeping, sold her house, and moved to Israel to go to rabbinical school.

El Al security had questioned her for two days before they let her even get on the plane. Border security had quizzed her for another two hours upon her arrival. Two weeks later, all of her clothing – all of it! – was still lost somewhere in the labyrinthine bureaucracy of Israeli security. It had never occurred to her that her story might sound odd to security, or that sounding odd might generate so many problems.

She could not speak Hebrew very well and she felt lost nearly all the time. She had already begun to suspect that she’d spend the year near the bottom of her class, struggling with the language.

It was June in the Middle East. She was hot, dirty, and scared. But she was determined not to disappoint her rabbi, so she met him for lunch with her chin up. Because he was a wise man, he saw right through her. Because he was a very gentle man, he chatted with her about this and that. Then right before lunch was going to end, and he was going to go home to Oakland, he said something to her that would carry her through the rest of a wonderful, difficult, terrible, miraculous year of transition:

“Do not be intimidated.”

She clung to those words through the next eleven months, through her struggles with her studies, through the violence of the Second Intifada, through the beginning of the Persian Gulf War, through the deaths of friends back home, through the cancer treatments of her dearest friend, through illness of her own, through everything that year threw at her. Those words reminded her that someone whose judgment she trusted believed in her.

She heard his words again and again in the words of the Torah, every time there was a challenge to be met, or a transition to be made.

Sometimes it was direct, as in Exodus Chapter 20, when Moses told his people, “Do not be afraid.” They were trembling at the foot of the mountain, afraid of the God with whom they were making the Covenant, afraid to move forward to become the People they were destined to be.

I hear those words, less directly but still quite clearly, in the words of this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotecha. The Hebrews are making the final preparations before leaving Sinai and going out into the midbar, into the wilderness.

They’ve gotten comfortable in their camp while they built the Ark of the Covenant. Now the time is coming to leave that comfortable camp to move onwards into the unknown. They’re scared.

To help them, God gives Moses a ritual for the beginning and the end of every day of marching:

In the morning, when the Ark was to set out, Moses would say:

Advance, Adonai! May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You!

And when it halted, he would say: Return, Adonai, you who are Israel’s myriads of thousands! –Numbers 10:35-36

When we are starting a new phase of life, two things can make all the difference: first, the encouragement of a mentor, and secondly, ritual that marks the passage of time and works to contain the stress. During my long, tough year, I held on to my rabbi’s reassuring words while self-doubt battered me.

And during that year, ritual sustained me. Every week, Shabbat would come and for a few hours, put a pause to the study. I would email my kids and write in my journal. I’d pray and listen to Torah for sustenance, not for recitation or a test.

Even more homely rituals sustained me day to day: in the morning I made eggs sprinkled with za’atar on my hot plate and ate them, always the same way. And at the end of the day, I’d put on my nightgown, creep into bed, and read the bedtime Shema from my old prayer book from home.

There are things we can learn here: first, it is normal to be nervous about a big life transition. Graduations, weddings, funerals, new jobs, new cities – all are scary. Second, there are things we can do to make these transitions easier: we can accept encouragement from our mentors (as opposed to pushing them away with “I’m fine!”) and we can look for rituals to help us persevere in the task before us. Neither is a magic pill (there are no magic pills.) Rather, they will sustain us as we put one foot in front of the other, traveling a challenging road towards a distant goal.

If you are on a new road right now, I wish you a kind mentor and comforting rituals. I wish you a safe arrival at some future time and place, when the unfamiliar has become familiar, and the wilderness has given way to home.