Boo! I feel that’s the word that should begin every political speech these days. It would be wonderful if the political discussion in both of my beloved countries could be based on reason, intellect and maybe even a little morality, but fear is the spice of the day for political discourse. I can’t remember fear being so dominant in political circles since 1964, when LBJ used the fear card against Beryl Goldvasser. You know, the first Jewish candidate for president, who happened to be an Episcopalian. The fear then was of the “bomb.” Nowadays, Bibi and Trump push fear of the “other.” The opposition peddles fear of Bibi and Trump. I’m not saying that any of them are necessarily wrong. Just thinking that I’d like to hear discussions of ideas. In this week’s Torah reading, God tells Moshe, “Don’t be afraid” (Bamidbar 23:34). I’ve written about this topic before (even on this verse), but I’m returning to the scene of the crime to share some new insights, because fear has become the currency of current politics.
Let’s begin with Moshe Rabbeinu. What was he afraid of? Context would suggest that it was the 800-pound gorilla, named Og. There are a plethora of rabbinic tales describing the size and strength of Og. This obvious answer disturbed the traditional commentaries, most of whom, I imagine, never fought a giant. They aver that this couldn’t be true because Moshe had God in his corner. Furthermore, Moshe had instructed the Jews, “Don’t fear or cower before them because God will fight on your behalf” (Devarim 1:29). So there are three normative answers to this difficulty.
First and most famous, Og had tremendous merit to his name because he was the “refugee” who came to Avraham and informed him of the capture of Lot (Bereishit 14:13). Others, more reasonably, suggest that this was a direct descendant of that Og, rather than the 500-year-old geezer himself. But it would be cool to watch the 120-year-old Moshe combat the 500-year-old Og.
The next answer is suggested by the Ramban. The promises of aid and success in battle given to Moshe covered the Land of Israel and the seven Canaanite nations. Og and his legions came from outside those parameters both geographically and genetically, and therefore might not be covered by God’s guarantees. Unlike most of us, Moshe read the small print on the back of his receipt.
And, finally, the third answer. Moshe was legitimately afraid because he was concerned that his own merit account was overdrawn. Moshe was fighting this final battle before the entry into the Promised Land under a sentence of death, because he wouldn’t be entering the land. Maybe this was the time and place of his final curtain, before handing over the reins to Yehoshua.
We have arrived at the real conundrum. Is the source of fear external (the assumed merit of Og) or internal (the concern that his cache of credit had been spent)? Obviously, it could be either. But which is the more significant and dangerous? This brings us back to the political debates. Should we fear more the outer bad guys (“animals”) or the inner goblins?
Fear is ultimately a good thing. From an evolutionary point of view, it is absolutely necessary. If our distant ancestors didn’t fear saber-toothed tigers we wouldn’t be here today, and those dentally enhanced tigers would. I remember the first time I went to the firing range during my basic training. The officer in charge told us that fear was our best friend on the battlefield and the rifle range. He explained that fear stopped us from doing stupid things and therefore kept us alive. That was good advice. However, at the time I was already plenty scared. If you saw my unit, you’d understand why.
But there’s a lot of bad fear going around. God was telling Moshe that his fear of Og was bad fear, because the Omnipotent trumps any sized giant. God also told Yaakov on three separate occasions to resist fear (of going to Lavans house, of meeting Esav, of going down to Egypt). Again, Yaakov was being informed that these fears were bad, because of God’s security umbrella.
Many of us make decisions based upon bad fear. For example, after 9/11 many travelers decided to forego air travel and switch to car travel, which is much more dangerous. According to a study done by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, an extra 1,595 Americans died in the five years after 9/11 because of the switch to autos. Bad fear. Statistics can help us make better decisions, but often a negative experience can cause us to make wrong decisions. Just because one fears poverty, that shouldn’t prevent that person from handing over whatever cash they have to a bandit with a gun. Even though Jack Benny had to think long and hard about it.
Let’s discuss a fear that has evolved. Generally, one shouldn’t be afraid of performing a mitzvah unless there’s a danger involved. In the 12th century, Rabbeinu Chaim, one of the Tosafot living in France, wrote (Ketubot 110b) that because of “danger” one may forego the mitzvah of living in Israel in their times. There are two versions of the danger he cited. The one that appears in our editions of the Talmud claims that keeping the mitzvot of the land are very hard. Other versions have him cite the dangers of travel in their day. Both of those problems have been solved in our day. Actually, life expectancy is higher in Israel than in the U.S.
We all go through life with fears, anxieties and phobia, but it’s incumbent upon us all to apply reason to these fears and make realistic decisions. Too bad we don’t have God’s voice in our ears. In spite of that, let’s keep fear in its proper place by using facts, experience and, yes, Torah to make good calls in life.
By Rabbi David Walk
Rabbi David Walk, who has recently made aliyah, was a teacher at the Bi-Cultural Day school as well as Congregation Agudath Sholom’s education director. He continues to be a tireless teacher and educator. For over 30 years, he has taught students from third grade and up and conducted many classes for teens and adults. Prior to joining CAS, he served as director and teacher at Yeshivat Hamivtar in Efrat, Israel.