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Monday, November 12, 2018

Coping with Fear — BT Berakhot 60a — #112

Our Rabbis taught [in a baraita]: It once happened that Hillel the Elder was traveling along the road [where he lived] when he heard screaming in (i.e., coming from) the city [he was approaching]. He said, “I am confident that this does not come from within my house.” Of him Scripture says: He shall not fear evil tidings; his heart is steadfast, confident in Adonai (Psalm 112:7). Rava said, “However you expound this verse—from beginning to end you may interpret it [i.e., the second clause may be understood to explain the first clause], or from end to beginning you may interpret it [i.e., the first clause can be read to explain the second]. [The verse] may be expounded from beginning to end [thusly]: He will not fear evil tidings. What is the reason? [Because] his heart is steadfast, confident in Adonai. [The verse] may be expounded from end to beginning [thusly]: His heart is steadfast, confident in Adonai [because] he shall not fear evil tidings.

Fear and misfortunate are inevitable elements of life and, for many, deeply intertwined. A diagnosis, illness, the shattering of an important relationship, loss of employment, not to mention any number of physical dangers all give rise to fear. As much as I prefer these editions of TMT to be timeless, the truth is today the Jewish world has cause for renewed fear. As the classic Jewish telegram has it: “Start worrying. Details to follow.” Many of us are again greeting an armed guard on our way into shul on shabbat, and we worry for our African American and Muslim friends and neighbors. We can draw strength from one another and the Talmud suggests a way to draw strength from God.

The mishnah (BT Berakhot 54a) that gives rise to this comment in the Gemara discusses what constitutes a prayer said in vain: any prayer hoping for an outcome that has already been determined. Mishnah provides two examples, the second of which is that if you are traveling home and hear the sound of screaming coming from your city, praying that not come from your house is a prayer said in vain—it either already is, or is not. This inspires the Rabbis to tell the story of Hillel who, upon finding himself in just this situation, expresses confidence that the screaming is not coming from his home. 

The Gemara comments that Hillel’s experience and consequent response to what would be a worrisome and frightening situation for most of us is mirrored by Psalm 112:7: He shall not fear evil tidings; his heart is steadfast, confident in Adonai. Psalm 112 delineates the blessings that redound to one who “fears Adonai.” Verse 7 is particularly apropos because hearing screams is akin to receiving “evil tidings”: both bad news and screaming are aural experiences that generate fear. Yet the second clause of Psalm 112:7 expresses confidence in God. What is the nature of this confidence? Is it a presumption of God’s protection from imminent danger, or the ability to endure inevitable fear? We cannot be certain. 

Rava explains that, in general, one can interpret a verse such as this with two clauses from “front to back” or “back to front.” This means that the second clause can be used to explain the first and vice versa. The implication is that either direction will supply the same meaning. But is this so? In the case of Psalm 112:7, we have two interpretative options:
    1. One need not fear bad news <——— full confidence in Adonai
    2. One need not fear bad news ———> full confidence in Adonai

Reading the verse “beginning to end” (#1) suggests that one who places confidence in God can hear bad news without being overcome by fear. Depending on one’s theology, this suggests two interpretative options: (a) Fear is not necessary due to the expectation that God will intervene and mitigate the bad news; or (b) Reliance on God affords one strength to cope with the fear that bad news generates (put another way: God’s presence in one’s life buoys one's strength in times of fear and danger because one knows they are not entirely alone). 

Reading the verse “end to beginning” (#2) works similarly. One can have confidence in God because or if one does not fear bad news. Full confidence in God changes how one hears the news: it doesn’t sound devastating to one who is fully confident in God to either intervene or provide strength and comfort (again, this depends upon your theology); hence it doesn’t generate crushing fear.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav
  1. How do you cope with fear? What helps you most? Do you lean on God?
  2. The Hasidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, is revered for many teachings, not least of  which is כל העולם גשר צר מאד, והעיקר לא להתפחד כלל “The entire world is a very narrow bridge, but the essential thing is not to succumb to fear.” (For a long time, this teaching was transmitted and translated incorrectly as: “…but the essential thing is not to fear.” Telling people not to fear is, of course, impossible, absurd, and perhaps cruel. However, encouraging people not let themselves be entirely overcome and overwhelmed by fear (as the original version does) is a reasonable and compassionate goal. Do you see a connection between not succumbing to fear—resisting the paralyzing power of fear—and Rava’s interpretation of Psalm 112:7?
  3. In light of Rava’s teaching, how would you interpret Exodus 15:20: עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ וַיְהִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה “My strength and God’s song have become my deliverance​“? How do your strength and God’s song interact? Can they be partners is responding to fear?

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