D’var Torah: “Fear Not”
Moses prepares his people for the battle awaiting them on the other side of the Jordan River, saying: “When you [an Israelite warrior] take the field against your enemies, and see horses and chariots—forces larger than yours—(lo tira) have no fear of them, for the Eternal your God, who brought you from the land of Egypt, is with you. Before you join battle, the priest shall come forward and address the troops. He shall say to them: ‘Sh’ma, Yisrael! Hear, O Israel! You are about to join battle with your enemy. Let not your courage falter. (Al tir’u!) Do not be in fear, or in panic, or in dread of them’ ” (Deuteronomy 20:1–3).
Not long before, the Israelites received such a command—“Al tira-u”—at the shore of the Red Sea as Pharaoh’s army of horses and chariots were advancing (Exodus 14:13). Not long after, Joshua will receive the same command—“al tira”—as he prepares his army for the battle of Jericho (Joshua 8:1). But this mitzvah of courage is not reserved only for the battlefield.
In moments of personal transition or trial, God commands individual men and women not to let their fears get the best of them. When Avram sets out into unchartered territory as the first to enter into a personal covenant with God, he is told, “al tira.” God reassures him with promises of protection and progeny (Genesis 15:1–5). When Hagar was about to give in to despair, an angel of God calls out, Al tir’i, “Have no fear” and rescues her son Ishmael from a deadly thirst (Genesis 21:17). When Isaac sets out from the security of home and does not know where the road may lead, God says, “al tira,” and reasserts the blessings promised to his father Abraham (Genesis 26:24). When the elderly Jacob prepares for his journey down to Pharaoh’s palace to be reunited with his son Joseph after twenty years of separation, God encourages him, al tira, “fear not” (Genesis 46:3). In every generation—from Ruth to David to Daniel—so many of our biblical ancestors heard these words just when they needed them most. Just when they felt most vulnerable, most alone, so many of our prophets heard and delivered God’s message of hope: “Fear not, for I am with you. Do not be frightened, for I am your God” (Isaiah 41:10).
The phrase, “Do not fear,” is repeated so often in the Hebrew Bible that some scholars take it to be a common expression of reassurance, but Maimonides insists that it is one of the 365 negative commandments of the Torah (Sefer HaMitzvot, Lo Ta’aseh, 58; Yad, Hilchot M’lachim7:15).
What does the repetition of this commandment say about our giants of faith, our biblical visionaries and dreamers? Even they had fears. Not only soldiers off to battle tremble at the thought of “What if. . . ?” Fear is, of course, part of the human experience. Only a fool is fearless when dangers are real. The hero, however, is the one who somehow hears God’s urging “al tira” and acts in spite of his or her fears. And what does the repetition of this commandment say about our God? As big as our fears are, God is bigger still. Because the Eternal One is constant and whole, God can contain our fears, absorb the shock of them, until we feel ourselves strong enough to carry on. Sometimes just a whisper, sometimes a shout, the Divine command, “al tir’u,” echoes and reverberates throughout Jewish history, urging our people onward, come what may.
There is one kind of fear, however, which is, encouraged: yirat Adonai, “fear of God.” Often translated more softly as “reverence” or “awe,” yirat Adonai is a distinct mitzvah intended to put all other fears into perspective.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik admits: “I know that I am perplexed, that my fears are irrational, incoherent. At times I am given over to panic; I am afraid of death. At other times, I am horrified by the thought of becoming, God forbid, incapacitated during my lifetime. . . I don’t know what to fear, what not to fear; I am utterly confused and ignorant” (“Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah,” J.B. Soloveitchik, Tradition, Spring, vol. 17, no. 2, 1978, pp. 62–3). But when a psychiatrist who deemed all fears to be unhealthy asked Rabbi Soloveitchik if the prayer for Yirat Adonai should be omitted from the High Holy Day machzor, he answered: “Fear seems to be a universal malaise…What kind of fear is it that can overtake man, thereby uprooting all other kinds of fears—fears of failure, or poverty, of loneliness, of rejection, of old age, or of disease? Only the fear of the Lord! … [During the High Holydays]. We pray that this great fear will free us from all the lesser fears which lurk everywhere, upsetting and embittering our lives” (as told by Zvi Kolitz in Confrontation: The Existential Thought of Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, [Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1993], p. 23).
The glorious fear of yirat Adonai is both simple and profound. How did the Psalmist intend it, when he said: Adonai li lo ira. “God is with me, I shall not fear”? (Psalm 118:6). Was his faith a quiet certainty, a sudden revelation, a public declaration? We can only imagine. But his assertion of fear/reverence/awe for God was enough to liberate him above and beyond his earthly fears. A God-fearing person is secure in ways others are not. This may not be the language of liberal Jews, but yirat Adonai is our mitzvah to fulfill. What might it mean for us?
Psalm 118:6 is woven into the prayer-poem, Adon Olam, attributed to Solomon ibn Gabirol of eleventh century Spain. It’s no wonder this is how we conclude our Shabbat services. It’s no wonder this is the verse we sing as we make our way from the sanctuary “in here” to the world “out there.” How we long to say with the Psalmist: Adonai li v’lo ira, “God is with me, I shall not fear.” Some days these treasured words are offered in full confidence. Some days they are merely aspirational, sung with the voice of longing. And some days that last rousing chorus can be enough to crack open our fears and make way for the possibility of courage.
For more on this theme, see Rabbi Harold S. Kushner’s book, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).