Rabbi David Walk
Over the centuries there have been some inspiring sound bites in presidential inauguration addresses. Among them are: With malice toward none, with charity for all (Abraham Lincoln, 1865), Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country (John F. Kennedy, 1961), and We wish the peace of justice, the peace of righteousness (Theodore Roosevelt, 1905). Sometimes the quotes are less inspiring, but nonetheless notable: Government is the problem (Ronald Reagan, 1981) and We have reached a higher degree of comfort and security than ever existed before in the history of the world (Herbert Hoover, 1929). But in terms of effect on the listeners probably no quote is more famous than Franklin Delano Roosevelt's words of strength from 1933, 'Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.' The point was powerful but not totally accurate. There really were things to be afraid of, for example the over confidence expressed by Hoover four years earlier, and, of course, the disastrous economic situation facing America and the world. But President Roosevelt was right that the fear of fear can be debilitating and paralyzing, and psychologists have given that phenomenon a name. It's called 'anxiety sensitivity'. In this week's Torah reading, God instructs Moshe to set aside his fears. I'd like to discuss what I think God had in mind for our, usually, fearless leader.
Let's set the scene: Israel has just destroyed Sichon of Heshbon and gained control over the Amorite territory from the Arnon River gorge in the south to the Jabbok River gorge in the north… The Israelites settled in the Amorite towns, including the capital city of Heshbon with its surrounding villages…Therefore the bards recited: Come and rebuild Heshbon, King Sihon's capital city! We completely defeated Moab. The towns of Heshbon and Dibon, of Nophah and Medeba are ruined and gone (Numbers 21:23-30). We sang a great song of victory over Sichon, the scourge of the trans-Jordan. We conquered a huge tract of territory which was considerably larger than that of King Og. So, now Moshe and our army were poised to attack Og in his stronghold of Bashan, which we call the Golan Heights. At that point God says to Moshe: Don't be afraid of Og. I will help you defeat him and his army, just as you did King Sihon who ruled in Heshbon. Og's territory will be yours (verse 34).'
We have many examples of God telling our leaders to resist the clutches of fear. The most famous example is Ya'akov. God tells him to resist fear so many times that this refrain has become a Saturday night anthem (al tira avdi Ya'akov, that phrase appears in Isaiah and thrice in Jeremiah).
Why does God tell someone, 'Don't be afraid!'? Simply, because that personality was scared to death. But fear is not a bad thing. When I was in basic training in the IDF, my drill sergeant told us that on the battlefield fear is our best friend. It can stop you from doing something stupid and, therefore, keep you alive. But now I return to FDR's point. That's true of reasonable fear, not irrational or 'unjustified terror'. Which brings us, finally, to the essential question: What was Moshe afraid of?
There are a number of answers to this question. The most famous, of course, is quoted by Rashi: Moses was afraid to fight against him lest the merit of Abraham advocate for him, as it says, 'The refugee came' (Gen. 14:13), this was Og (Rashi on 34). So, this MIdrash explains that Moshe's fear of Og came from the fact that God owed him one, because of what he did for Avraham when he informed him about Lot's capture. If you're concerned about why would Moshe be afraid of someone who is approaching 400 years old (and even older if one accepts that he was a 'refugee' from Noah's Flood), don't be. Many commentaries explain that he was the descendant of that Og and inherited merit just as we do from Avraham. If that one doesn't grab you, how about the fact that he was a giant. In Deuteronomy (3:11), it says that his bed or, perhaps, tomb is nine cubits (between thirteen and eighteen feet) long. That's huge! But, based on the terrible performance of Spielberg's BFG, giants aren't in vogue right now. So, let's try another approach.
I think that the source of Moshe's fear is to be found within the Jews, not in Og or his minions. We are given two critical pieces of information. First the Jews have occupied and settled the vast area formerly under the control of Sichon. Second, Og shows up for war with his entire nation. Moshe understands that strength comes from unity. The Jews are not as unified as they had been in the battles against Amlek, Arad or Sichon, because some percentage of the nation has settled and occupied the vast holdings of Sichon. This frightens Moshe. When the nation is on the same page, and is cohesively attacking a problem, then Moshe is confident in the result. However, when some of the people are enthusiastically following Moshe, while others are busy with their own agenda, in this case setting up their personal homesteads in the newly acquired territories, then our great leader is nervous. In spite of this realistic concern of Moshe, God says. 'Don't worry. It's under control, because you're following My instructions.'
All of the stories in the Bible are so meaningful because they are instructive for us in our age. One can be concerned about our beloved State of Israel, because its adherents and warriors don't represent the whole Jewish nation. The divisions within our people are deep and disturbing. But, when it comes to the defense of our homeland and the fulfillment of our destiny, we must listen to God's instructions to the heroes of our nations: Don't be afraid because, you are avdi, My servant.