Fear Factor by Rabbi Darren Blackstein


Engaging in war is surely a daunting task.  The very prospect of losing one’s life can understandably interfere with the focus one needs to maintain during battle in order to survive.  The first four Pesukim in Chapter 20 of Devarim tell us how to conduct ourselves when called upon to assume the responsibility of this job.  We are told that as we approach the time of the war itself, a Kohen will approach the nation and tell them not to be afraid, as Hashem will be with us and will fight the enemy with us so that we will be saved.  The Torah then continues to enumerate several categories of people that are exempt from battle for various reasons.  However, the overwhelming majority of people are going to suit up and put their lives on the line.  No matter how much the Kohen reminds the people about Hashem’s involvement in our battle, there is going to be a tendency to be scared of the enemy, especially when facing the threat of horse and chariot, as the Pasuk describes.  Perhaps examining our fears will reveal the best ways to deal with them.

The Ibn Ezra on Pasuk 3 explains three effects that fear can have on a person.  This Pasuk uses three terms for fear that seem to explain what “Al Yerach Levav,” “Do not be faint-hearted,” means.  The Kohen tells the troops, “Al Tir’u,” not to be afraid,  “Al Tachp’zu,” not to panic; and “Al Ta’artzu,” not to break down.  The Ibn Ezra explains that being afraid relates to the heart, the very core of one’s emotions.  We then proceed to panic which is the physical manifestation of this fear, leading one to actually leave the battlefield.  If someone has managed to remain in combat, then we turn to the Kohen’s final exhortation, to not break down and compromise the quality of our actual defense and attack.  We see from Ibn Ezra that fear emanates from within and can then eliminate or severely curtail the efficacy of our actions.  This overall fear can smother our desires and can, in the long run, destroy our faith.  

Fear seems to weave its way into our hearts when we perceive ourselves as being alone.  This loneliness is not born out of a lack of human companionship but rather out of a lack of divine companionship.  When one feels abandoned by Hashem, he can be in a crowded elevator and still feel alone.  This loneliness can then rob us of the strength we have and need in order to go on with our lives! Our hearts go out to those around the world, both inside and outside of our country who, at this time feel alone due to disaster knocking at their doorstep.  We join them and certainly attempt to relate to them by feeling some of their anguish, even if only on some remote level.  What can be done so that this pain can be somewhat relieved? Perhaps the key is in the first Rashi in our Perek.  Rashi points out that the issue of war is discussed directly after the Torah discusses an issue regarding honesty among witnesses.  If we are honest among ourselves and render just decisions in our courts, then we are assured that we will emerge victorious and unscathed from battle.  

If we maintain loyalty to truth and justice – Emet and Mishpat – when dealing with each other in times of peace, then when war strikes, Hashem will preserve us so that we may continue to display this loyalty.  This loyalty can then be the key to removing that sense of loneliness, eventually causing all our fear to dissipate.  

The Torah directs its comments to the scenario of war.  Perhaps we can broaden the concept to that of world suffering.  May it be Hashem’s will that if we demonstrate compassion and sincere kindness to those suffering and to each other, Hashem will assist in their relief and thereby remove their sense of loneliness, enabling them to carry on and lead productive lives.  


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