By Reb David
“The only thing to fear is fear itself,” said President Franklin Roosevelt to his bedraggled nation in the grips of the Great Depression. In this week of Pareshat Shlach, Israel’s bedraggled wanderers needed to hear FDR’s words – and so do we today. Approaching the Promised Land en route from Egypt, our wandering ancestors sent scouts across the Jordan River. Afraid, feeling exposed and alone, the scouts reported back:
“The country we traversed and scouted devours its settlers. All the people we saw in it are men of great size; we saw the [Giants] there… – and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Num. 13:32-33).
Feeling small, discouraged, habituated to fear, learned helplessness – these are the shadow underside of challenge and struggle. Because challenge and struggle inhere in every life, the spiritual issue is not whether one sometimes feels afraid and small, for such moments also inhere in every life. Rather, the issue is how one responds: courage is not the absence of fear, but action despite fear. Or as FDR put it:
First of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.
Courage means moving forward through fear; leadership means inspiring this forward movement in ourselves and others. Lacking courage means wandering the desert of fear – and that’s exactly what our ancestors did. Fearing to move forward, feeling small like grasshoppers to a giant, our ancestors wandered the desert until another generation could rise up to try again. When we wander in our own lives, often we imagine that the way forward is too scary or risky, so we turn away and wander. We might not even be aware that we’re afraid, so habituated to turning away. And if we are aware, often we don’t ask if wandering is worse than what we fear. What if we’re stronger and more capable than we might imagine?
For our ancestors, lacking courage also meant rebelling against God (Num. 14:9), the Source of strength. Denying their own capability meant denying God. Because our ancestors’ fear was stronger than their faith. God sent them back into the desert to burn their faithlessness away. If we feel ourselves wandering the desert of fear, can we find our courage again? What might help us remember the way back?
Torah records that at the end of this encounter, Moses instructed the people to wear tzitzit – fringes on the corners of their clothes, colored a special kind of sky blue. When we look at them, we are to remember God instead of the smallest, most base instincts of our hearts and minds (Num. 15:39). This physical reminder served a spiritual purpose: when distracted, forgetful or wracked with fear, we need something physically connected to us – not far away, but right here and now – to upshift our consciousness. And why blue? Perhaps to remind us of the miraculous Crossing of the Sea… or Moses’ sapphire vision of holiness at Sinai… or God’s role in completing us (in Hebrew תכלית, much the same as the color techelet, תלכת). When we claim these symbols of miracle, power and capacity as our own, they can upshift our consciousness out of paralysis and fear.
It’s okay to be afraid, but we needn’t wander aimlessly in the desert of fear. Find your reminder of a power far greater than any fear – then grab hold and go forward.