It is hard to deny that fear pervades much of the civilized world these days, fear in a variety of forms. There is fear of terror, fear of violence, fear of driving on certain roads or visiting particular neighborhoods, fears stoked by the sense that Western political leaders have no answers, fears of the outsized reach of dictators as evinced by the recent contretemps involving North Korea, Sony, and the awkward release of a movie comedy, and even fear of repercussions – public ridicule and the like – for saying the “wrong” thing, using politically incorrect language, or otherwise not toeing the ideological line imposed by elite thinkers.
There is a sense that matters are escalating out of control across much of the world, that the civilized world is in the gun sights of the evildoers, and that – as an older and wiser person suggested to me last week – the malevolent forces are unstoppable.
That attitude, while plausible, has engendered a world of fearful people and that is an unhealthy development for two reasons: it robs life of its vitality and purpose and it only further encourages the evildoers. When FDR said at his first inaugural, in the throes of the Great Depression, that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” (a late addition to the text, and apparently borrowed and paraphrased from an advertising slogan), he knew exactly of what he was speaking.
The Talmud (Berachot 60a) relates that a disciple of Rabbi Yishmael was walking in the market of Zion, and the teacher saw that his student looked petrified. Rabbi Yishmael said to him, “you are a sinner, because the verse in Yeshayahu (33:14) reads, ‘the sinners were afraid in Zion.’” The disciple countered, “but doesn’t Scripture (Mishlei 28:14) also teach, “Fortunate is the one who is always afraid”? There is a value in being fearful! It keeps one alert and vigilant to all dangers, physical and spiritual.
Rabbi Yishmael explained that the latter verse – extolling the virtues of fear – relates only to Torah matters. We should be afraid of forgetting our knowledge, so that we will review our studies constantly. Similarly, we should be afraid of sin, so as to make us more attentive to our temptations, shortcomings – and strengths.
Rav Shlomo Aviner commented that the only true fear we should ever have is about our status before G-d. All other fears are a frivolous waste of energy, especially fears of human beings and their evil. This echoes something that Rav Soloveitchik wrote – the one fear (of G-d) should overwhelm any other fear that a person has. Consequently, those other fears become trivial, and succumbing to those fears betrays a lack of faith.
While in exile, fear was always a constant companion of the Jew. “And your life will hang in the balance. You will be frightened night and day and not be sure of your life” (Devarim 28:66). It is a measure of the unprecedented safety that Jews have felt in the United States in the last half-century that we are markedly uneasy with even the slightest threats, however vague, to our well-being. It is not like that elsewhere in the world – where threats are real and palpable – and not even in Israel today where, notwithstanding the statistical improbability of being attacked by terrorists, there is a foreboding sense that any driver/shopper/pedestrian can encounter stoners, shooters and worse, not to mention the threat of war on the northern and southern borders.
And, of course, the situation in America can change on a dime if too much deference is paid to anti-social forces or purveyors of terror. No geo-political situation is permanent.
That is why even in Israel caution rather than fear is warranted, and the same could be said for here as well. Certainly, the Torah has promised tranquility to the Jews dwelling in Zion, even if that serenity is conditioned on good behavior and rational, Torah-based responses to one’s enemies. If we are neglectful on either front, then evil will gain the upper hand, as it has several times in the past. But the capability of feeling serene and unruffled even amid occasional chaos is a gift to Jews in Israel and elsewhere. But it has to be embraced and not neglected.
The backlash by the American public – demanding to see (what is by many accounts) a bad movie – is a constructive response to the spinelessness that has afflicted much of the Western leadership in recent years. Perhaps it will serve as a wakeup call because decision-making by fear and the coddling of bullies is not restricted to the film industry.
We have grown accustomed to the sight of rioters having their way, unchecked and unrestrained. Whether their grievances are legitimate or illegitimate is not relevant; no grievance gives anyone the right to rampage, run amok, burn down the buildings and loot the property of innocent third parties. Yet, America has been treated to that sight several times in the last few months. Mobs are allowed to vent – at the expense of the innocent – out of fear that the violence will be worse if the looters are challenged, thwarted or arrested. But such reticence is a victory for the bullies over the civilized.
Whenever Israeli soldiers run from Arab rioters who are throwing stones, burning tires or otherwise causing mayhem – most recently in Jerusalem itself – it only emboldens the perpetrators of violence, and leaves the good people wondering to whom they can turn for protection and justice. Something is wrong with all those pictures.
Free speech is a casualty of fear. Truth is a casualty of fear. Suppressing an articulation of one’s values is a casualty of fear. Even the right of self-defense can be a casualty of fear. Those casualties take a very high toll, not in life but in self-confidence and personal happiness and on the norms of civilization.
On college and graduate school campuses across America, there are certain words that can no longer be uttered and certain opinions that are deemed unacceptable for discussion (whether pro-life, pro-gun, pro-death penalty, pro-Israel, etc., depending on the campus and on the professor). The WSJ recently noted that a law professor was asked by some tender students not to use the word “violate” in class (as in, “said conduct violates the law”) because the word “violate” also connotes, to some, a sexual assault, and therefore might cause pain to some of the listeners. This strikes me as not normal, as there will always be some person taking offense for anything said by anyone. It is as if some people demand a guarantee that they will pass through life never being offended by anyone, or else. Or else… what?
One of the worst fates a person can suffer today – in certain circles – is being branded a racist, sexist, homophobe, Islamophobe, etc. Proof and evidence are superfluous; the indictment itself is tantamount to a conviction. These are bullets fired recklessly that bring some political or social gain to the accuser, and cause people to bite their tongues when they should be speaking out. By contrast, some accusations don’t matter. Accusing someone of being anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, anti-white, anti-American, etc. simply carries no weight; they are blanks that are fired, make noise but have no consequences except for the intimidation of members of the besieged groups.
The only way to reverse the trend is to live without fear and speak freely – of course, without giving needless offense to anyone – but fearlessly and freely nonetheless. To allow unlimited rights to intimidators and fewer rights to the intimidated is not a recipe for societal harmony or the triumph of justice.
Eleanor Roosevelt wrote that “courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run it is easier.”
It is a lesson that the Western world needs to re-learn and that Jews in particular forget at our peril. Ultimately, that courage comes naturally to people of faith. It is the message that we reinforce to ourselves when we conclude the reading of each book of the Torah – “be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened!” – and the mandate given us by Yehoshua when we first entered the land of Israel: “Chazak ve’ematz – be strong and courageous!”
It will work as well today as it did then.