Rabbi David Walk
With the elimination of Osama bin Laden, we should all sleep more soundly. All believers in western society and its blessings should feel confident that we can go about our business of making this world safe for democracy. Oh, really? It seems that a majority of the articles in the aftermath of the killing of Osama are concerned with the new or continued threats from al-Qaeda and its minions (bad guys always have minions, have you noticed? Shuls should have so many minions.). Headlines like: 'Taliban vows not to be deterred by the death of Osama' or 'New al-Qaida threats' and 'Terror Threat Worries Amtrak Riders' abound. There was even an interesting article entitled 'Mental health experts caution against feelings of closure,' which basically told us not to even feel good about the event. This is a good week to analyze our feelings about fear and threats, because our Torah reading is really spooky about the potential for danger lurking in every corner.
We definitely have an interesting parsha this week. The beginning of the reading presents a list of blessings which are a description of the Garden of Eden on earth. There are colorful and uplifting descriptions of this Paradise, like 'the Land will yield its produce, and the tree of the field will give forth its fruit,' 'Your threshing will last until the vintage, and the vintage will last until the sowing,' or 'no army will pass through your land (Leviticus 26:4-6).' However, the greatest aspect of this heaven on earth will be 'I will walk among you and be your God (verse 12).' This is reminiscent of 'the sound of God went through the Garden (Genesis 3:8).' This is amazing and marvelous, to live with the clear sense of God's eternal presence.
Okay, that was easy. But what constitutes the low point in the hellish description of the curses which follows? There are a number of candidates. There is a lot of bad stuff listed. Remember we're Jewish, so the curses outnumber the blessings like four to one Here are a few choice examples: 'I will visit upon you shock, consumption, fever, and diseases,' 'Your enemies will rule over you; you will flee, but no one will be pursuing you,' 'I will incite the wild beasts of the field against you, and they will bereave you, utterly destroy your livestock and diminish you, and your roads will become desolate', and ' I will scatter you among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword after you. Your land will be desolate, and your cities will be laid waste.' Those are all bad, and I left out the most gruesome examples. But I think the worst of the lot is: I will bring fear in their hearts in the lands of their enemies, and the sound of a rustling leaf will pursue them; they will flee as one flees the sword, and they will fall, but there will be no pursuer (Leviticus 26:36). The hardest punishment to endure is the unrelenting sense of dread. The things which go bump in the night and the bogeyman under the bed are the signs of a truly horrible existence. Paranoia, which comes from the Greek word for madness and means irrational fears, was probably the first identified type of mental illness. It results in a delusional state.
Most of us know that Franklin Delano Roosevelt said that there is nothing to fear but fear itself in his first inaugural address (March 4, 1933, he actually said, 'The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.'). Less well known is that Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook said something very similar thirty years earlier. He wrote in a letter from 1905: Exaggerated fear removes the radiance of life from people. There is nothing in the world, no matter how evil and cruel, that is quite like it. It magnifies all evils beyond comparison to what they really are, and it darkens the brightness of all good things, for it burrows beneath their foundations and excessively claims that evil is hidden beneath the obvious good. It is the source of all weakness and all feebleness, whether physical, ethical, or intellectual, solely a fear that crosses beyond its proper boundary. Such a fear terrifies a person so much that he will do nothing to save himself. He will not even lift a finger to help himself, because he is afraid that he might be hurt, he is afraid that action may bring an evil that he cannot escape. And finally, this fear weakens and enfeebles him so much that out of his inertia and inaction, he falls prey to every evil.
Rav Kook, unlike President Roosevelt, emphasized that he was only discussing excessive fear, because normal, rational fears are healthy. I remember being told by my officers in the IDF that it's good to be scared on the battlefield. It keeps us from doing stupid things which might get us and our comrades killed.
But how can we break this pervasive fear? The verses in our parsha seem to suggest that the antidote for this condition is God returning to us through fulfillment of the covenant made with our Patriarchs and with the land itself (verse 42). This will break the cycle of dread. Rav Kook suggests that the rectification (tikun) can come in almost the opposite way. He claims that if we endeavor to find God then we can uncover the strength to break the stranglehold of fear. But it requires hard work. There are many times when God isn't easy to find. However we have been assured in the Talmud that "If a person says, 'I toiled and I did not find'…do not believe him" (Megillah 6b).
So, in the aftermath of the killing of Osama, in the many threats to our beloved State of Israel, and in our own private lives, reasonable fear and caution are always appropriate. But, without excessive glee, there is room for satisfaction that one more threat has been eliminated. If, on the other hand, we are too afraid to counter the threats t our way of life, then the bogeymen will have won.
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