Ariel Fisher
An Orthodox Rabbi Living In Senegal

Feeling Paralyzed In This Moment of Fear

Pillar of Fire by Paul Hardy 1896 (From Wikipedia)

These are truly scary and confusing times. When Bina and I were struggling to decide whether to stay or leave Senegal, one of our friends there reminded us that there was no good clear answer. Every person and every family needed to decide what was best for them, and to recognize that what is best for them is not necessarily what is best for other families. That helped us think about our decision to ultimately leave Senegal, and I still find it helpful when trying to navigate basic questions about life in America.

Daily life has become filled with uncertainties and doubts. Is it safe to go for a walk with my kids in the woods? What if we wear masks? Do I need to disinfect all the grocery bags? The list goes on. We make decisions for our families that feel safe and wise, but frequently doubt ourselves. We are confused.

We are also in quarantine. After living abroad for eight months we are now just an hour drive from my parents in New York, yet we cannot see them. Nor can we see anyone else. Our children, like children all over the world, have not seen or played with children their own age for a month. The feeling of being so close to other people, yet so far away has been one of the most confounding parts of our past two weeks here in America.

With the last days of Passover approaching I found some solace in the Torah’s description of the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt. On the last day of Passover we celebrate the day that the Jewish people crossed the Red Sea. Before the sea famously split in half, we are told that the Jewish people had run away from Pharaoh and had reached the sea but were not sure where to go. They could not turn back to Egypt, but they did not know how to cross the sea. Pharaoh looked at the Jewish people and declared that they are ‘nevuchim’ astray in the desert, the wilderness has closed in around them (Exodus 14:3). Pharaoh decided that it was therefore the opportune moment to attack them.

The word nevuchim is quite peculiar. It seems to imply that the Jewish people are lost, but it actually means confused. The most famous usage of the word nevuchim was by Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed Moreh Nevuchim. Ibn Ezra explains that the Torah is telling us that the Jewish people were like a person who cannot find good advice and does not know what to do. Rashi takes this even a step further. He explains that their confusion led them to feeling immobilized in a way that felt like they were imprisoned or confined. They were so overwhelmed by doubt and confusion that they were unable to move.

The Ramban in his description of the scene at the sea adds another layer of complexity. He explains that generally the Jewish people were led by a pillar of fire in the desert which would light up the way before them. They were able to see clearly where they were going. At the sea however, the pillar of fire was behind them. It separated the fleeing Israelites from the Egyptians. However, with the pillar behind them, they were not able to see the way forward as clearly as before.

This image resonates with me. The way forward is unclear, and our lives are full of uncertainty, confusion and at times fear. We seem trapped by our own confusion and are both figuratively and literally stuck in place. We are, in this sense, just like the Israelites fleeing Egypt, at their moment of greatest fear and vulnerability. It also seems that we too are largely helpless and unable to affect the situation. But that is not entirely true.

The Jewish people at this moment had two contradictory reactions. The first thing that they did was call out to God in prayer. The Jewish people realized that they were not able to remedy the situation themselves and were truly reliant on God for help. The second thing that the Jewish people did was complain. The Torah tells us: “Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the LORD. And they said to Moses, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt?” (Exodus 14:10-11).

This seems to belie a truly human reaction to suffering and challenges. On the one hand, there is a natural inclination to turn to God and to believe in the efficacy of our prayers. On the other hand, it is hard to truly believe that our prayers are effective, and it sometimes seems more helpful to turn to our human leaders and blame them for our problems.

I believe that the seventh day of Pesach, which begins in just a few hours and commemorates the crossing of the Red Sea, comes to teach us to try to mimic the Jewish people in their first response, to cry out to God and to pray in our moment of confusion and suffering. It is easy (perhaps too easy) to turn to politics and blaming other people in challenging times. It is much harder to do the introspection and foster the beliefs that real prayer demands of us. In the past few weeks, I have been inspired by pictures of millions of people around the world in so many different countries and religions turning to prayer and sharing the same prayers in these challenging moments. I wish for myself and all of us the ability to cry and pray at this moment and hopefully our prayers will be heard. Chag Sameach.

About the Author
Ariel Fisher is an Orthodox rabbi who is currently spending the year in Dakar, Senegal with his wife, an anthropologist as his wife conducts field research for her PhD. They have two boys with them as well. Before moving to Senegal, Ariel worked as the OU-JLIC Rabbi at Princeton University for four years. He studied for his semicha in Israel, has a BA from the University of Pennsylvania in Urban Studies and plans on making Aliyah with his wife and children from Senegal at the end of the year.
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