Sam was certain there were dybbuks under his bed. He went to his rabbi, who told him to see a doctor. So Sam went to see his internist, who sent him to a psychiatrist, but nothing helped. Sam was absolutely certain there were dybbuks hiding under his bed. His fear began to overwhelm him entirely. Then one shabbat he came to shul totally calm. “You look great, Sam,” his rabbi said. “I feel great, Rabbi, and the dybbuks are gone from my life. One session with a therapist and they’re no longer under my bed.” “One session? How?” his rabbi asked. “The therapist told me to cut the legs off my bed.”
Fear is often disabling. Perhaps this explains much of our ancestors’ behavior in the Wilderness. The book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ more-or-less chronological summation of 40 years in the wilderness.
Moses might have organized it from the inside out: that is, from the perspective of the Israelites’ experience. In which case, it might have begun like this: “We have spent 40 years see-sawing between love and fear. God has demonstrated unreserved love for us – bringing us out of bondage, parting the Reed Sea for us, giving us Torah, dispensing manna and quail in the Wilderness, furnishing a traveling well to accompany us, providing instructions to build a Tabernacle so that God could abide right here with us, guiding us through the Wilderness with a beacon of cloud and fire. You were horribly afraid when I left you to ascend Mt. Sinai; you demanded that Aaron make you an idol, a violation that will hang over us like a black cloud for generations to come. You ignored Joshua and Caleb and allowed fear to overtake you, consigning an entire generation to die out in the Wilderness. And how many times were you scared and wanted to turn tail and run back to Egypt.”
Aren’t God’s acts of love sufficient to inspire confidence in God and allay the fears of the Israelites? Yet so much of what the Israelites do, and fail to do, is due to fear. Love inspires us to engage in life. Fear can cause us to retreat: reasonable risks we don’t take, opportunities we forego, challenges we convince ourselves we can never meet – all impeded by fear. And in those moments of intense fear (or even terror) – becoming unemployed, awaiting the results of a crucially important medical test, receiving terrible news concerning a loved one, watching a child being wheeled into the operating room – we often retreat even further.
In this week’s parashah we read Moses’ first address to the Israelites, encamped on the border of Moab. They are told not once, but twice not to fear. First, concerning the Amorites: Have no dread or fear of them (Dt. 1:29). Then a second time concerning King Og of Bashan: Do not fear him… (Dt. 3:2). Twice, a terrified population is told, “Don’t be afraid.” …And don’t think of pink elephants either.
How is this supposed to help? It defies logic. As if that isn’t bizarre enough, God assures the Israelites: I have delivered [Og] and all his men and his country into your hands. How is that possible before the war is fought? And if winning is a given, why are the Israelites afraid in the first place? Beraishit Rabbah attempts to justify God’s assurance to the Israelites by telling us that Abraham modeled the kind of trust God wants the Israelites to place in God: When confronted by Og (the ancestor of the Canaanites), Abraham continued preparing matzah for Pesach; and when Og threatened to kill Isaac, Abraham proceeded with Isaac’s brit milah. The message here is: push on and trust that God protects those who do mitzvot.
I’m sure that works for some people, but by no means everyone. So let’s return to the Torah for insight.
Have no dread or fear of them. None other than the Lord your God, who goes before you, will fight for you, just as He did for you in Egypt before your very eyes, and in the wilderness, where you saw how the Lord your God carried you (n’sa’a’kha)…N-sa-a’-kha – “I carried you.” It has happened before. Eleanor Roosevelt said:
You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, “I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.” You must do the thing you think you cannot do.Each of us has experiences to draw on for strength, proof that having survived once with God’s help, we can do it again. We all have successes and untapped reserves of strength. But for some people, mining history to feel God’s strength in the midst of crisis is too abstract, too much to ask.
Perhaps n-sa-a’-kha can be understood in other ways. Torah has no vowels and the consonants of n'sa-a'-kha can be pointed various ways.
Here’s one: no-sei-kha – “I am (already) carrying you.” Loving and caring people help one to feel God’s presence and love in a moment of intense fear is enormously powerful. You can both be that reassuring presence and accept the ministrations of other – the eyes, ears, and hands of God – when you are gripped by fear.
Here’s one more: Ni-sa’-kha – “We will carry you.” The “we” is the community of love and support we have the power to create. It is love overpowering fear. Love integrates: it connects us with others and gives us meaning and purpose. Fear separates: it makes us feel isolated and alone. We’ve all seen it. Many of us have lived it.
And more: Ni-sa’-kha – “We will carry you” – couched in the future tense –points to hope. A vision of a better future (and in some cases, any future at all) alleviates fear. Aristotle said, “Hope is a waking dream.” But I think hope is much more. Samuel Smiles, a 19th century Scottish writer and reformer put it best, “Hope is the companion of power, and mother of success; for who so hopes strongly has within him the gift of miracles.”
Ni-sa’-kha – “We will carry you” is God saying, no-sei-kha – “I am carrying you.” That is why God – who is molding Israel into a community through Torah, can tell Israel, n-sa-a’-kha – “I carried you.”
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman