Fear: The Eternal Toxin

This year Sh’lach L’cha, the story of the 12 spies resonates with us more profoundly. We read of the twelve representatives sent by Moses as commanded by God to scout the land they are about to enter. Moses gives them practical questions to answer in their first experience of the place God has promised them as their destiny since the Exodus and Sinai, but their reaction is so tragically human. 10 of the scouts affirm the Divine promise of plenty, bringing back a cluster of grapes so large that two men had to carry it. But then the promised land becomes terrifying, and they lose control of their fear and panic with wild exaggerations, until they have completely lost their sense of their destiny and any hope. We read these seven verses, Numbers 13:28-34, and recognize the fear that expands into panic, it is the same toxin we face today.

After more than 18 months of a global pandemic which still endangers millions of people and has wreaked havoc on economies, we are now just beginning to return to what we once called ‘normal’. There are many unknown risks involved in this re-engagement of public life, unknowns about vaccines, infections, individual rights and communal safety. Should we require proof of vaccination prior to full synagogue seating for weddings, Bnei Mitzvahs, even the High Holy Days? Should the Jewish community follow the social standards of the community or establish its own standards? How do we calculate the costs of implementing the Jewish community in a still lingering COVID reality, who among us will measure the risks and values we must now take?

Now one year beyond the horrific video of George Floyds murder and the trial of the police officer who shamelessly committed the crime, we all face the global awareness of racism. The systemic challenge of racism includes a predominantly white Jewish community that must reckon with its own historic participation in racism. There have been involuntary reactions to racist history, the removal of statues, erasure of names and shaming of ideas that have been previously ignored. Much like the 10 spies whose fear of the Anakites and Amalikites, became panic :”that we saw the Nephilim there—the Anakites are part of the Nephilim—and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Num 13”33) The full toxicity of their fear pushed them to conflate reality and myth, enemies and imagined monsters, so that finally the filter of fear reduces them to the mere state of insects—grasshoppers. Only then does the Divine realize that this community is no longer capable of living independent lives in this or any land. This generation must die in the desert and new one free of these paralyzing fears will enter the promised land.

The fears of disease, racism, transformative political disruption and now unimagined increase in antisemitism is infecting our generation. The hatred of Jews by the ‘right’ has been a constant threat, but a renewed threat from the ‘left’ especially after the last Gaza/Israel conflict is creating some of the fear described in the Torah. There are new webinars, podcasts and Zoom meetings asking questions, interpreting new data and suggesting new strategies about the new issues of safety for American Jews, suddenly antisemitism is once again in the center of every Jewish agenda. Is our fear an exaggeration of our immediate circumstances or should we move toward a more aggressive set of responses? When popular media like the New York Times uses their front page to report on the deaths of children in Gaza without considering the terrorizing of Israeli children or John Oliver the most watched liberal satirist, criticizes Israel and fails to even mention Hamas as a terrorist organization, should Jews take note and see dangerous antisemitism?

My former university, St. Cloud State University, has recently decided that all students must take at least one course about racism in order to graduate. Previously, one Jewish Studies course, Antisemitism in America, was among courses that were accepted for university graduation credit. Is this curricular decision at a state university 75 miles from where George Floyd was murdered, a reasonable public communal decision or an act that further marginalizes Jewish life in Minnesota? Is it safe or smart for Jews to fight a group of anti-racist faculty? At this moment in Jewish and American history how should we interpret our safety and the prophetic values by which we live?

I used to teach Numbers 13-14 every semester in my Hebrew Bible course. Students who grew up in small rural communities shared how afraid they were in coming to the Mall of America in Minneapolis, where there was an amusement park, stores, restaurants and several hotels. For students who grew up on urban or suburban culture these stories would often provoke laughter which in turn provoked deeply expressed shock from students who grew up on farms or in towns where they never locked their doors. Over the years, I learned from these students that fears and risks are anchored in very specific contexts of social history. The 10 spies that returned to tell the people of giants and monsters and their sense of doom, represent the actual human engagement of unknowns and risks that create panic, depression and emotional paralysis. Maybe the inclusion of this story is meant for this moment of challenges. Pandemic, racial change, economic fragility, political division and antisemitism might be what they saw as the Anakites, Amalekites, and Nephilim! We need to acknowledge that the fears are real, but we need to help each other from the panic that distorts our understanding of the experience.
May the days ahead be safer than we fear so that our destiny will continue to lead us toward a Tikkun Olam for all those who frighten us the most.

About the Author
Joseph has linked his congregational rabbinate and academic careers with interfaith relations, contemporary philosophy, and serving Jews who are sometimes ignored. He is retired in Rio de Janeiro where he teaches, writes and volunteers his rabbinic time in communities without rabbis. He has written "What Am I Missing? Questions About Being Human"
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