Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"

Fight Fear with Fire

Fear is all around us. We live in a constant state of uncertainty.  We can leave to the “experts” to argue over what constitutes terrorism, and whether we should be more afraid of people who murder because of ideology, religion, mental instability or simple, unadulterated hate.  Murder is murder.  The fact that so many have the desire to commit mass, random murder is not new. The fact that they have the ability to do so and acquire sophisticated weaponry so easily, is.

It is so easy to become confused by all the posturing among pundits and politicians, which only paralyzes us all the more.

In chapter 39 of Genesis, Joseph is confronted by the greatest test of his young life, the advances of Potiphar’s wife.  She finds him handsome, wants him, and from her position of power proceeds to embark on a classic campaign of sexual harassment in the workplace.  The Torah gives us Joseph’s response to those advances in verse 8, “But he refused, and said unto his master’s wife: ‘Behold, my master, having me, knows not what is in the house, and he has put all that he has into my hand.”

It all sounds very clear-cut and courageous.  But the musical cantillation for the word “he resisted,” “Va-y’ma’en,” tells another story entirely.  It’s a shalshelet, a note found only four times in the entire Torah (listen to it here). This roller-coaster, Hamlet of a note goes up and down three times, and wherever it is used it connotes hesitation, accompanied by the recognition of a fateful personal choice that needs to be made.

Rabbi Steven Nathan comments that Joseph was actually living in a world of shalshelet.  He writes, “For at various times in our life we all live in the shalshelet, that long, drawn out, wavering place where all seems uncertain.”

In his commentary, he is speaking about sexuality and identity.  But I think the analogy can also apply to violence and fear.

We often speak of being numb to the endless wave of mass murder that is happening around us, and to a degree that’s true.  The list of mass shootings has become so endless that we barely have time to assimilate a Colorado Springs before we need to shift focus to a San Bernardino. The daily attacks in Israel and elsewhere only reinforce our numbness.   Media outlets have routinized their coverage of these events, just as the politicians have routinized their responses.  Murder has become all too routine.

It’s easy to be paralyzed both by the overwhelming, apparently unstoppable wave of horror that we confront, and by our fear to do anything or say anything about it.

We need to resist that fear and break that paralysis.  We need, as Joseph does, to assume control over our lives and to act courageously.

The Talmud (Yoma 36a) shows how Mrs. Potiphar tried to seduce her prey.

“Each day, the wife of Potiphar would attempt to seduce him with words. Clothing she wore for him in the morning she would not wear for him in the evening. Clothing she wore for him in the evening she would not wear for him in the morning. She said to him, ‘Surrender to me.’ He answered her ‘No.’ She threatened him, ‘I’ll confine you in prison…I’ll subdue your proud stature…I’ll blind your eyes,'” but Joseph refused her. She then gave him a huge sum of money, but he did not budge.”

Not even Mrs. Robinson went to such lengths to seduce Benjamin Braddock.

The Talmud (Sota 36b) then provides a detailed picture of Joseph’s inner struggle:

“The image of his father appeared to him in the window and said, ‘Joseph, your brothers’ names are destined to be inscribed on the stones of the [high priest’s] apron, and you will be among them. Do you want your name to be erased? Do you want to be called an adulterer?'”

In the end, the ambivalence of the shalshelet is transformed into an amplification of the refusal.  Joseph doesn’t just refuse her, he does so three times in a single word.  His “No!” becomes “No! No! No!”

I can almost hear Joseph banging on the glass, a la Benjamin Braddock at the church door, proclaiming that his ambivalence toward life is now over, and he is ready to forge his destiny, rather than being the passive pawn in someone else’s game.

With the wave of terror so intense in our lives, we need to say “No! No! No!” to it by affirming life in the face of death.

How do we do that?

By celebrating life wherever and whenever we can.

By acting courageously to defeat the ideology of mass murder.   We so often hear people calling for moderate Muslim leaders to publicly reclaim Islam from the extremists, who have distorted their religion and defamed God.  I know many who do, and I agree that they should.  But I need to have the courage to do the same.  For there are extremist rabbis who have distorted the meaning of Judaism as well.  While Jewish terrorists have not done nearly the damage that Muslim terrorists have (by a long shot), I see little difference between those who blow themselves up for Allah and those who kill a 1 year old baby by burning his home, scribbling “Long live Moshiach” in Hebrew as their calling card.  They are all perversions of ancient, life-affirming traditions.  They all must be condemned and defeated.

By acting courageously to remove the means of mass murder.  Common sense gun laws.  Greater regulation of social media as a forum for incitement, recruitment and training of death-cult volunteers.  That’s just the beginning.  We need to have the courage to stand up to powerful lobbies and intractable legislators.

By living lives of senseless beautypracticing random acts of kindness wherever we go, guided by an ethos of an unbounded love for our neighbor.

On this Hanukkah, let’s fight fear with fire, paralysis with pyrotechnics.  As this conflagration of madness engulfs the world, let’s defeat it by lighting one, simple flame – and then courageously add one more each night, until the whole world is filled with our light.

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and the upcoming book, "Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously." Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2019, he received first-prize from the Religion News Association, for excellence in commentary. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Chloe, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: (203) 322-6901 x 307
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