There is Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself? by Rabbi Raphi Mandelstam


President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous quote, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself,” has always been puzzling. Is fear really the only thing to fear? I think we all know that there truly is no greater fear than the fear of our own demise. The fear of death is perhaps best expressed in the beginning of Parashat Chukat.

Zot Chukat HaTorah,” ”This is the statute of the Torah” (BeMidbar 19:2)— the introduction to the laws of Parah Adumah and how it counters Tumat Meit could not be more clear. The Torah is informing us that this will not make sense. As Ramban explains, a Chok is a law that has a reason, but we don't understand the rationale behind it. The idea of a Chok, a law whose rationale is hidden from us, is one of the hardest things to grasp. Keeping the Mitzvot of the Torah is challenging even when we understand them.Why would Hashem make it harder for us by creating a series of laws that are not at all understood? If one looks carefully, it seems that the idea of a Chok is so important that it even preceded the giving of the Torah itself.

When thinking of the first Mitzvot that Hashem commanded us to keep, many of us immediately think of receiving the Aseret HaDibrot at Har Sinai. However, forget the first Mitzvot given to the Jewish nation were actually given in Mitzrayim, and there were even subsequent Mitzvot given between Yetziat Mitzrayimm and Matan Torah at Marah. The Torah states, "Sham Sam Lo Chok UMishpat," “There He made for them a statute and an ordinance” (Shemot 15:25). Which Mitzvot were actually given at this time? Although there are various answers in the Gemara and Midrashim, many sources say that we were given three Mitzvot: Shabbat, Dinim and Parah Adumah. Why were these Mitzvot given specifically now? Why did Hashem not give these Mitzvot at Har Sinai?

Rav Amital, the former Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivat Har Etzion, explained that the Mitzvot given at Marah were a test to see if the Jewish people could handle all of the Mitzvot that were to follow. The reason that these specific Mitzvot were chosen was because those three Mitzvot together encompass many of the ideals of the Torah, and if Bnei Yisrael could not manage to fulfill these, Hashem could not expect us to follow all of the Mitzvot. Shabbat, as the Torah repeats, is a recognition of Hashem's mastery of the world, a cornerstone of our Emunah, belief in Hashem. Dinim, civil laws, are also understandable since they are the basis of Mitzvot Bein Adam LaChaveiro and ensure that we lead moral and ethical lives. But why did Hashem teach Bnei Yisrael about the Parah Adumah, a Mitzvah which we will never understand? Rav Amital explains that in order to enter into a covenant with Hashem, it is crucial to accept our limited understanding of the wisdom of God and that we will not be able to comprehend His reasoning. Although the majority of Mitzvot are readily understandable, and as the Rambam stresses in the end of Hilchot Milah, we have an obligation to understand them, there are aspects of life that are not meant to be understood.

What do we do when we encounter something that we don’t understand? Are we supposed to only commit ourselves to Mitzvot which we understand? To do so would be a great sign of arrogance. As Rav Aharon Kotler points out, Hashem, unlike humans, does not need to limit Himself to the five senses we possess. Why should God be limited to our finite, human minds? It takes humility on our parts to accept that we don’t understand everything. It is this message which is so crucial for us to understand that Hashem needed to ensure Bnei Yisrael were willing to accept it before giving them the rest of the Torah.

It’s no coincidence that the paradigm of a Chok is the Parah Adumah, which deals with how we react to death. Of all mysteries that the human mind and psyche can never really fathom, the most prominent is the concept of death. To think about it can paralyze us. It is without a doubt the most humbling of realities--because our lives are in Hashem’s hands, we don’t live forever. It is through the idea of a Chok, which forces us to recognize that Hashem is greater than us and that He has a reason for everything, even if it is beyond our comprehension, that we are able to come to terms with death. Through our mortality we must remember and internalize that as humans we must always be humbled and awed by the greatness of Hashem.

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