VaYera 5777: I Will Fear No Evil

Fear is the sharpest of two-edged swords. In psychological terms, it triggers the fight or flight response, either clarifying the mind to organize effective action, or causing a person to flee or even freeze in place.

In Judaism fear is likewise a nuanced phenomenon. It is often viewed negatively as a trait that can lead to cowardice and lost opportunities. In Parashat Va’yera (Gen.18:15), Sarah’s fear leads her to deny laughing in response to news of her pregnancy, and earns her a rebuke from God. Throughout the Bible God is concerned that the prophets will be incapacitated by fear, frequently telling them, “Do not fear” (אל תירא).  Last week God told Abram not to fear, “for I am your shield” (Gen. 15:1). Jacob will likewise be told not to fear when running from home and descending to Egypt (Gen. 26:24 and 46:3).

The most common explanation for the reason not to fear is that God has not abandoned the prophet, but is “with” them, offering them protection, blessing and reward. Divine companionship is the ultimate shield against fear, as Psalm 23 so beautifully states, “I will not fear evil, for You are with me.” The fear of Jacob/Israel becomes a theme within prophetic literature, especially in Jeremiah. The entire nation is comforted but also warned not to allow fear to cause them to abandon hope in their future and to cease in their efforts to serve God.

Yet some sorts of fear can be constructive. This week Abraham will explain his decision to deceive Abimelekh based on his impression that, “there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.” Ironically, the same God who commands God’s servants not to fear is to be feared. Absent such fear, morality can be ignored, and the most heinous crimes can be expected. The expression “you shall fear your God” (ויראת מאלהיך) occurs frequently in Leviticus. In the Prophets and Writings, fear of God is considered the beginning of knowledge and wisdom (Isa. 11:2; Prov.1:29, 9:10).

Jewish liturgy frequently asks God to place fear in our hearts so that we will not be humiliated. Fear of God leads to courage, apparently, whereas fear of other people leads to weakness and defeat.

In Mishnah Avot 3:1 R’ Hanina b. Dosa expands on the Bible’s claim that fear or reverence must precede the acquisition of wisdom, or else all learning will be lost. And in Bavli Brakhot 33b, Rabbi Hanina teaches that fear of God is the key to all virtue—it is the only attribute over which a person has true discretion. Rabbi Shimon b. Yohai there teaches that fear is the greatest or perhaps only asset that God keeps in the treasure house. Rambam notes that fear of sin is the only check upon free will and is thus the key determinant of whether a person will incline towards virtue or vice.

How paradoxical that the same quality can yield both courage and cowardice, grandeur and disgrace, activism and despair! The differentiation is the origin of our fear—are we afraid of people or of God? Of physical consequences or of spiritual corruption? It is of course rational at times to be afraid of people—an unhinged individual with a weapon inspires fear that we will be injured, but this type of fear ought also to inspire action—whether fight or flight—and not deprive of us of our own sense of value.

This constructive kind of fear is what we prefer to call reverence, but our ancestors understood it as real fear. Fear that I will succumb to my worst instincts and ignore my more noble nature. Fear that in a moment of bad judgment, I will injure others and ruin my reputation. Fear that my parents, teachers and friends will be disappointed by my behavior. Fear that instead of practicing virtue, I will succumb to sin. Fear of God.

This week I remembered a remarkable moment at the funeral service of Rabbi Marshall Meyer z”l in December 1993. His son Gabriel (Gabi) rose to the bimah of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun to eulogize his father. Instead of speaking, he began to pound the podium in a slow cadence and to sing the words of the Israeli song, Isaac the Simple, “Do not fear, Israel, do not fear; are you not a lion’s whelp?” This song by Avihu Medina from the 1971 Hasidic song festival followed the frightened flight of Jacob from his brother Esau and his father-in-law Laban, and showed him growing in stature and faith until he would fear no more.

Gabi was obviously paying tribute to the fearlessness of his father who, during the years of the junta in Argentina, stood up to the generals and protested on behalf of the disappeared young people. This week my friend Rabbi Mauricio Balter of Beer Sheva recalled that when he was a young rabbi in a small town in Northern Argentina in the 1980s the Catholic Church sought to impose catechism classes on all public school students. Rabbi Balter’s congregants were terrified of opposing this policy, but when Rabbi Balter called his teacher Rabbi Meyer for advice, he was told that his job is to be a prophet, and not to fear. Bolstered by this message, Rabbi Balter did protest, and the decree was defeated.

I write these words because we are living in a moment of heightened political fears. The incoming Trump Administration is an unknown, but it has already signaled dramatic shifts of policy and attitude. The appointment of officials who have vilified Muslims and others who have mocked the reality of climate change, to give just two examples, have rightly raised concerns even among traditional Republicans. Many people have responded with fears and tears, and this is certainly understandable.

Yet Judaism teaches us not to wallow too long in fear. Fear of people can cause us to become incapacitated, and can lead us away from acting on our more noble impulses. We do need to be prudent in the face of immediate threats, but on a deeper level, we should not allow ourselves to be afraid of other people.

Rather, true fear should be reserved for God, for concern over our own spiritual failure. We should fear wasting the opportunity to act upon that which is right and true. We should fear misuse of resources that could have changed the course of history for the better. We should fear letting down the people who depend on us, and we should fear the temptation to abdicate responsibility. We ought to fear being less than what God intended for us. Such fears can be constructive. They can clarify our analysis and inspire us to effective action.

I close with the words of Psalm 3:7 said by David even as he fled from his rebellious son Absalom: “I have no fear of the myriad forces arrayed against me on every side.” Faith is the antidote to fear, leading a person out from despair and onto the path of courage and virtue.

 

בראשית פרק יח

(טו) וַתְּכַחֵ֨שׁ שָׂרָ֧ה׀ לֵאמֹ֛ר לֹ֥א צָחַ֖קְתִּי כִּ֣י׀ יָרֵ֑אָה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר׀ לֹ֖א כִּ֥י צָחָֽקְתְּ:

בראשית פרק כ

(יא) וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם כִּ֣י אָמַ֗רְתִּי רַ֚ק אֵין־יִרְאַ֣ת אֱלֹהִ֔ים בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וַהֲרָג֖וּנִי עַל־דְּבַ֥ר אִשְׁתִּֽי:

ישעיהו פרק יא

(ב) וְנָחָ֥ה עָלָ֖יו ר֣וּחַ יְקֹוָ֑ק ר֧וּחַ חָכְמָ֣ה וּבִינָ֗ה ר֤וּחַ עֵצָה֙ וּגְבוּרָ֔ה ר֥וּחַ דַּ֖עַת וְיִרְאַ֥ת יְקֹוָֽק:

תהלים פרק קיא

(י) רֵ֮אשִׁ֤ית חָכְמָ֨ה׀ יִרְאַ֬ת יְקֹוָ֗ק שֵׂ֣כֶל ט֖וֹב לְכָל־עֹשֵׂיהֶ֑ם תְּ֝הִלָּת֗וֹ עֹמֶ֥דֶת לָעַֽד:

משלי פרק א

(כט) תַּ֭חַת כִּי־שָׂ֣נְאוּ דָ֑עַת וְיִרְאַ֥ת יְ֝קֹוָ֗ק לֹ֣א בָחָֽרוּ:

משלי פרק ט

(י) תְּחִלַּ֣ת חָ֭כְמָה יִרְאַ֣ת יְקֹוָ֑ק וְדַ֖עַת קְדֹשִׁ֣ים בִּינָֽה:

משנה מסכת אבות פרק ג

רבי חנינא בן דוסא אומר כל שיראת חטאו קודמת לחכמתו חכמתו מתקיימת וכל שחכמתו קודמת ליראת חטאו אין חכמתו מתקיימת הוא היה אומר כל שמעשיו מרובין מחכמתו חכמתו מתקיימת וכל שחכמתו מרובה ממעשיו אין חכמתו מתקיימת:

פירוש רש”י על אבות פרק ג

חכמתו מתקיימת. מעשיו מתקיימים בידו ומצליח בכל אשר יפנה דכיון דיראת שמים עומדת בעיניו כל שעה אינו נכשל במעשיו והוא נזכר ביראת חטאו:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף לג עמוד ב

ואמר רבי חנינא: הכל בידי שמים – חוץ מיראת שמים, שנאמר : ועתה ישראל מה ה’ אלהיך שואל מעמך כי אם ליראה. אטו יראת שמים מילתא זוטרתא היא? והאמר רבי חנינא משום רבי שמעון בן יוחי: אין לו להקדוש ברוך הוא בבית גנזיו אלא אוצר של יראת שמים, שנאמר: יראת ה’ היא אוצרו! – אין, לגבי משה מילתא זוטרתא היא. דאמר רבי חנינא: משל, לאדם שמבקשים ממנו כלי גדול ויש לו – דומה עליו ככלי קטן – קטן ואין לו – דומה עליו ככלי גדול.

רמב”ם הלכות תשובה פרק ה הלכה א

רשות לכל אדם נתונה אם רצה להטות עצמו לדרך טובה ולהיות צדיק הרשות בידו, ואם רצה להטות עצמו לדרך רעה ולהיות רשע הרשות בידו, הוא שכתוב בתורה הן האדם היה כאחד ממנו לדעת טוב ורע, כלומר הן מין זה של אדם היה יחיד בעולם ואין מין שני דומה לו בזה הענין שיהא הוא מעצמו בדעתו ובמחשבתו יודע הטוב והרע ועושה כל מה שהוא חפץ ואין מי שיעכב בידו מלעשות הטוב או הרע וכיון שכן הוא פן ישלח ידו.

תהלים פרק ג

(א) מִזְמ֥וֹר לְדָוִ֑ד בְּ֝בָרְח֗וֹ מִפְּנֵ֤י׀ אַבְשָׁל֬וֹם בְּנֽוֹ:

(ב) יְ֭קֹוָק מָֽה־רַבּ֣וּ צָרָ֑י רַ֝בִּ֗ים קָמִ֥ים עָלָֽי:

(ג) רַבִּים֘ אֹמְרִ֪ים לְנַ֫פְשִׁ֥י אֵ֤ין יְֽשׁוּעָ֓תָה לּ֬וֹ בֵֽאלֹהִ֬ים סֶֽלָה:

(ד) וְאַתָּ֣ה יְ֭קֹוָק מָגֵ֣ן בַּעֲדִ֑י כְּ֝בוֹדִ֗י וּמֵרִ֥ים רֹאשִֽׁי:

(ה) ק֭וֹלִי אֶל־יְקֹוָ֣ק אֶקְרָ֑א וַיַּֽעֲנֵ֨נִי מֵהַ֖ר קָדְשׁ֣וֹ סֶֽלָה:

(ו) אֲנִ֥י שָׁכַ֗בְתִּי וָֽאִ֫ישָׁ֥נָה הֱקִיצ֑וֹתִי כִּ֖י יְקֹוָ֣ק יִסְמְכֵֽנִי:

(ז) לֹֽא־אִ֭ירָא מֵרִבְב֥וֹת עָ֑ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר סָ֝בִ֗יב שָׁ֣תוּ עָלָֽי:

(ח) ק֮וּמָ֤ה יְקֹוָ֨ק׀ הוֹשִׁ֮יעֵ֤נִי אֱלֹהַ֗י כִּֽי־הִכִּ֣יתָ אֶת־כָּל־אֹיְבַ֣י לֶ֑חִי שִׁנֵּ֖י רְשָׁעִ֣ים שִׁבַּֽרְתָּ:

(ט) לַיקֹוָ֥ק הַיְשׁוּעָ֑ה עַֽל־עַמְּךָ֖ בִרְכָתֶ֣ךָ סֶּֽלָה:

מדרש תהלים (בובר) מזמור ג

לא אירא מרבבות עם. לכשיבואו לעשות עמי מלחמה, והוא שאמר משה כי תאמר בלבבך רבים הגוים (דברים ז יז), ומה כתיב בתריה, לא תירא מהם (שם שם /דברים ז’/ יח).

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