Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 6 December 2014 / 14 Kislev 5775

Facing Fear

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Yaakov

Dear Rabbi,

Given the situation now in Israel and Jerusalem, I find myself “fearing” for my life and I’m not quite sure how to cope with it. Do you have any ideas that might help me face this fear and get back to living life as normally as possible?

Dear Yaakov,

Unfortunately, given the situation, many people feel such concern, and it is completely normal to do so.

Still, there is a big difference between feeing concerned and “fearing” for one’s life, as you put it.

First, let me point out that while these barbarous attacks are directed intentionally at Jews for political or religious motivations, the truth is that in any large city around the world, due to crime and accidents, a person who leaves his house must know that he may not return.

I absolutely do not intend to diminish the horror of terrorist attacks, which must be thwarted at all costs, but in terms of “fearing” what might happen, it’s not clear that the likelihood of something happening is significantly different.

My point is simply that when one lives life in a normal way, tragedies may occur, no matter where we live or what we do – yet we continue to live normal lives while taking normal precautions.

That being said, whether we like it or not, fear is a natural feeling which we have to deal with. But the fact that we have this feeling indicates that it, like all other emotions, comes from G-d, and therefore has the potential to be positive. The question is, how can we channel or harness fear for our benefit?

The first and most essential step is to gain control over ourselves in order to prevent fear from debilitating us. This can be done by asserting rational thinking over our feelings of fear, thereby transforming the fear into constructive caution. Thus, rather than being paralyzed by fear, we actually use it to fuel positive action.

Here’s a practical example. Suppose a person fears leaving the house because of some potential danger. If rational thinking would not dictate one’s staying home, that same rational thought, taking into consideration the various aspects of the danger, can be used to formulate a plan of action which would determine where to go, when, with whom etc. And while on the way, the germinal feeling of fear can be harnessed to navigate our surroundings with heightened awareness and alacrity.

Relating to fear in this way, far from causing panic, actually empowers us to take greater control of our lives.

However, no matter how much physical effort we expend to protect ourselves from harm, ultimately, since everything is from G-d, we must make an effort on the spiritual plane as well – meaning that we must make sure we are free of sin and thereby worthy of Divine protection, above and beyond the physical measures we take to avoid danger.

This is illustrated by the Torah’s teaching regarding Jacob’s fear of his pending confrontation with Esav: “Jacob sent messengers to his brother Esav....The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, ‘We came to your brother Esav and he is also coming toward you with four hundred men’.…Jacob became very frightened and [he prayed].…‘G-d, deliver me from the hand of Esav, for I am afraid of him, lest he come and strike me together with mother and children’.” (Gen. 32:4-12)

But considering G-d’s earlier promise to guard Jacob, “Behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will restore you to this Land, for I will not forsake you until I have fulfilled what I have spoken concerning you” (Gen. 28:15), a point which Jacob himself includes in his current prayer for protection from Esav, the question is: What was he afraid of? G-d had already promised him Divine protection!

Our Sages answer (Berachot 4a) that Jacob did not fear Esav per se, but rather he feared loss of Divine protection as a result of his having neglected the mitzvah of honoring his parents during the many years of his absence. What he really feared was sin!

So, to master fear we must channel it rationally in order to positively promote, not paralyze, action, while simultaneously using it to catalyze teshuva in order to engender Divine favor and protection!

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