From Parashat B’shallach
“Fear is a powerfully creative force. Every great invention and every intellectual advance has behind it as a part of its motivation the desire to escape some dreaded thing. The fear of darkness caused man to discover the secret of electricity. The fear of pain led to the marvelous discoveries of medical science. The fear of ignorance was one reason that man built great institutions of learning. The fear of war was one of the forces behind the birth of the United Nations. Angelo Patri was right in saying, “Education consist in being afraid at the right time.” If we were to take away man's capacity to fear, we would take away his capacity to grow, invent and create. Some fear is normal, necessary, and creative.”
~Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
"The Mastery of Fear or Antidotes for Fear"
The torah portion we read on Saturday, B’shallach, is also known as the Song of the Sea-as it has within it the pericope of Torah that holds the Mi Chamocha. The story follows the Israelites as they escape Egyptian slavery towards a promised land. On its face, this portion is a celebration of liberation. But it is one of dichotomy: in this moment of joy, there is deep fear and anxiety. This contrast is illustrated in the Hebrew where there is a euphonic similarity between the verbs "Va-Yar/He saw" and "Va'Yire-u/They feared." From a biblical perspective, fear is a result of lacking in emuna, or faith. In that view, fear correlates directly with a lack in trust in God-not in faith in ourselves.
But is that a healthy way to look at fear? Is faith in God really all that is needed to quiet the worry? I think there is a delineation here. First, fear serves a valuable purpose. Our senses sharpen, our mind focuses. Our bodies stand at the ready to assess the danger and react to it by either fleeing or fighting. We are, in that moment, our most creative self-ready to pivot immediately in the face of challenge. But I would assert that it isn’t just a belief in God that is critical here. We must trust in ourselves. This feels harder. We all have moments of self-doubt-we aren’t good enough, or smart enough or brave enough. But the answer must be in those moments “I am enough”. It won’t assuage the fear entirely, but it will do much to help you walk through it. As Nelson Mandela once said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
If we are to use fear in a healthy and positive manner, we must first need to access if we are indeed in danger or if our anxiety is stemming from worries of change or of failure. Those are two very different things. Many times it is the later. There is no charging lion-simply the knowledge of what’s in front of us is daunting. In those moments, what if we imagine thinking of our fight or flight mechanism differently? What if we use this gift as a galvanizing force? Our will to stand up and drive towards the challenge allows us to test our might. We are up to the task, but the only way over a difficulty is through it. Let’s examine for a moment the tale of Nachshon ben Amidav from a Midrash taken from Pirke d’ Rabbi Eliezer, composed sometime around 630 - 1030 CE:
Rabban Gamaliel said: The Egyptians pursued after the children of Israel as far as the Reed Sea, and encamped behind them. The enemy was behind them and the sea was in front of them. And the Israelites saw the Egyptians, and feared very greatly, and there they cast away from themselves all the Egyptian abominations, and they repented very sincerely, and called upon their God, as it is said, "And when Pharaoh drew nigh, the children of Israel lifted up their eyes" (Ex. 14:10). Moses beheld the anguish of Israel, and arose to pray on their behalf. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: "Speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward" (Ex. 14:15).
Moses spoke before the Holy One, blessed be He, saying: Sovereign of all worlds! The enemy is behind them, and the sea is in front of them, which way shall they go forward? What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He sent Michael (the angel), and he became a wall of fire between (Israel and) the Egyptians. The Egyptians desired to follow after Israel, but they are unable to come (near) because of the fire.
The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: Moses! "Stretch out thine hand over the sea, and divide it" (Ex. 14:16). And Nachshon jumped first and went down (in)to the sea, and his name was holy and great in/to the eyes of everyone (in B’nei Yisrael), and through Nachshon, the son of Yehuda's, domineering hand, all of B’nei Yisrael entered after him into the sea, as it says, "Yehuda became His holy nation, Israel his dominion." (Tehillim 114:2)...
Some may look at Nachshon and see bravery. I look at him as someone who keenly understands that he has no choice but to put one foot in front of the other. Going back towards a life of slavery tethered to a narrow place-the translation of Mitzraim/Egypt is an impossibility. He will die there physically and spiritually, living with the knowledge that he never even tried. Instead, he took the fear head on-believing the uncertainty up ahead is something he will/must overcome. It may not be pretty, but the choice and his fate are in his hands. Certainly, prayer and faith may help you to move forward, but one can’t not depend on that alone. Even our sages imagined God’s agreement on that point. In Bemidbar Rabbah 13: When Nachshon jumps in the sea, “Said the Holy One of Blessing to Moshe: My beloved is sinking in the sea and you are praying?! 'Tell the Israelites to get going!’” (Ex. 14:15)
Get going, indeed. Dale Carnegie puts it succinctly, “Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”
May the work of our hands be acceptable to you, oh God. We will walk through the uncertainly with heads held high, knowing that you have imbued us with the knowledge that we are strong and resilient and capable to meet any challenge head on. So I am taught by parashat B’shallach.
Cantor Michelle Drucker Friedman