The Torah of Fear: Its Source and Remedy

Fears can be extraordinarily debilitating, and generally speaking sane people don’t want to be debilitated. This is the reason why a great deal of psychology exists around fear, i.e. how to deal with it, how to overcome it, and even how to benefit from it. On the surface this sounds great, but if you’ve ever tried to implement any of these strategies, e.g. distract your thoughts, speak it out, face your fear, adopt a positive mindset, etc., it won’t take you very long to realize that they don’t really deal with fear itself. Rather, they deal with our reaction to fear. At best, these strategies may help us through certain crises in our lives, and that can be practically helpful, but they certainly don’t prevent new fears from emerging in our psyches down the road. And the situation seems to be getting worse. For example, the top 10 fears on the Chapman University Annual Survey of American Fears for 2022 (its 8th such survey) center on five main topics: corrupt government officials, harm to a loved one, war, environmental catastrophes and the economy. And it’s not that these fears are found in only 10-20% of Americans. These fears exist in 50-60% of the American public! The interested reader can spend time looking up data on other countries (such as Israel), but it is no secret that our world is drowning in an ocean of fear and nothing seems capable of rescuing it.

Let’s ask some basic questions. Where do fears come from? If fears are such a basic human emotion (as psychologists are wont to say), why don’t innocent young children have fears? Can we do anything about fears other than manage or cope with them? Instead of focusing on band-aids that may or may not be effective for a particular individual in the short term, wouldn’t it be better if we knew of a solution that would work for everyone and actually eliminate fears once and for all?

It is written in Likutei Moharan 15:1: מִי שֶׁרוֹצֶה לִטְעֹם טַעַם אוֹר הַגָּנוּז הַיְנוּ סוֹדוֹת הַתּוֹרָה שֶׁיִּתְגַּלֶּה לֶעָתִיד צָרִיךְ לְהַעֲלוֹת מִדַּת הַיִּרְאָה לְשָׁרְשָׁהּ (Whoever wants to experience a taste of the Hidden Light [Ohr ha-Ganuz], i.e. the esoteric secrets of the Torah that will be revealed in the future, needs to elevate the attribute of fear [yirah] to its source). We learn at least four things from this statement. First, yirah is real. It exists. It’s not a figment of our imagination. Second, it is an inherent attribute of man. It isn’t something foreign to the human experience. Third, it exists in two states, a fallen state and an elevated state. Fourth, we have the power to raise or put back the fallen type of yirah to the place where it is supposed to be, to the place where it was originally.

What are the two states of yirah? The elevated yirah, which is the correct or proper type of yirah, is the yirah of G-d, as it is written (Kohelet 12:13): סוֹף דָּבָר הַכֹּל נִשְׁמָע אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִים יְרָא וְאֶת־מִצְוֺתָיו שְׁמוֹר כִּי־זֶה כׇּל־הָאָדָם (The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Fear G-d and keep His mitzvot, for this is the whole [purpose] of man). In fact, this kind of yirah (which also includes the idea of reverence) is a true spiritual asset (Tehillim 111:10): רֵאשִׁית חׇכְמָה יִרְאַת יְיָ (The yirah of Hashem is the beginning of wisdom [chochmah]). The fallen yirah, which is unacceptable in Hashem’s eyes, is the yirah of anything else. For example, we are not supposed to fear people (Devarim 1:29): לֹא־תַעַרְצוּן וְלֹא־תִירְאוּן מֵהֶם (Do not dread or fear them). David ha-Melech expresses a similar sentiment (Tehillim 118:6): יְיָ לִי לֹא אִירָא מַה־יַּעֲשֶׂה לִי אָדָם (Hashem is for me; I have no fear. What can man do to me?). We are not supposed to fear wars, diseases and the like (Tehillim 91:5-6): לֹא־תִירָא מִפַּחַד לָיְלָה מֵחֵץ יָעוּף יוֹמָם׃ מִדֶּבֶר בָּאֹפֶל יַהֲלֹךְ מִקֶּטֶב יָשׁוּד צׇהֳרָיִם (Do not fear the terror of night, the flying arrow of day, the plague that goes out in darkness, or the scourge that devastates in the afternoon). We could bring forward many more examples, but this should suffice.

How do we elevate yirah? If we knew how to do this, we would only be left with the elevated form of yirah and all other objects of fear would simply vanish. We wouldn’t need to cope with them, face them, talk our way through them or employ any of the other techniques suggested by psychologists. They would simply disappear.

R’ Nachman gives us the answer. We elevate yirah through judgment [מִשְׁפָּט, mishpat], specifically by judging ourselves, as it is written (Tehillim 112:5): טוֹב־אִישׁ חוֹנֵן וּמַלְוֶה יְכַלְכֵּל דְּבָרָיו בְּמִשְׁפָּט (Good is the man who lends generously, who conducts his affairs with mishpat). To conduct one’s affairs with mishpat is to behave like a righteous king, as it is written (Mishlei 29:4): מֶלֶךְ בְּמִשְׁפָּט יַעֲמִיד אָרֶץ וְאִישׁ תְּרוּמוֹת יֶהֶרְסֶנָּה (A king upholds the land with mishpat, but a haughty man tears it down). And by upholding the land, the king elevates yirah since the ‘land’ is an aspect of yirah (Tehillim 76:9): מִשָּׁמַיִם הִשְׁמַעְתָּ דִּין אֶרֶץ יָרְאָה וְשָׁקָטָה (You pronounced judgment from heaven; the land was afraid and quiet). To summarize, when a person judges himself with integrity and truth, i.e. when he conducts his affairs with mishpat, he behaves like a good king and sustains or upholds his land, the territory over which he has sovereign jurisdiction. And since upholding the land is likened to upholding yirah, such a righteous king releases yirah from its fallen state and returns it to its source. And how does he judge himself with mishpat? The only way to do this is by speaking the truth with his Creator during his daily hitbodedut. When he does this, he demonstrates his yirah only for his Creator and all other fears will fade away.

Surprisingly, the mechanism is very simple. It is written in Midrash Rabbah (Shofetim 8:5): אָמַר רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אִם נַעֲשָׂה הַדִּין לְמַטָּה אֵין הַדִּין נַעֲשָׂה לְמַעְלָה וְאִם לֹא נַעֲשָׂה הַדִּין לְמַטָּה הַדִּין נַעֲשָׂה לְמַעְלָה (R’ Eliezer says, If we make judgment below then judgment will not be made Above, and if we don’t make judgment below then judgment will be made Above). And how are judgments that are made Above manifest in our lower world? In just about every way we can think of, as it is written (Tehillim 119:91): לְמִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ עָמְדוּ הַיּוֹם כִּי הַכֹּל עֲבָדֶיךָ (Your judgments are upheld every day because all things are Your servants). To illustrate this principle, two stories are told in the Gemara (Nedarim 41a). The first is of a man who was riding a small mule. When the mule was crossing a narrow bridge, it went crazy and bucked the rider. The rider fell to his death in the river below. The second is of a scorpion that was crossing a river on the back of a frog. Having crossed the river, the scorpion disembarked and stung a man who subsequently died of his sting. In both cases, this verse from Tehillim 119:91 was quoted to illustrate the principle involved—that everything in the created world can act as an agent to administer a heavenly decree. Of course, the heavenly decree doesn’t always have to be as severe as death, but the point is the same either way. The principle is succinctly explained in Likutei Moharan 15:2: וּכְשֶׁשּׁוֹפְטִין אֶת הָאָדָם בְּמִשְׁפָּט דִּלְעֵלָּא אֲזַי הַדִּין נִתְלַבֵּשׁ בְּכָל הַדְּבָרִים וְכָל הַדְּבָרִים נַעֲשִׂים שְׁלוּחִים לַמָּקוֹם לַעֲשׂוֹת בְּזֶה הָאִישׁ מִשְׁפָּט כָּתוּב (When a person is judged with mishpat from Above, then the sentence is clothed in all kinds of things, which all become messengers of the Omniscient One to execute upon the man the mishpat that was decreed).

These messengers then become the objects of our fears. We fear them because they have become messengers of Hashem to execute judgment against us because we didn’t bother to take the time to pass judgment upon ourselves. As such, these things can be ordinary objects like a kitchen knife or a pillow or they can be people whom we are more prone to fear, such as corrupt state officials, terrorists, thieves, or even animals and viruses, etc. It makes no difference. If we judge ourselves so that no judgments need to be conducted Above, and then the heavenly courts get dismissed, then nothing down here can harm us. Nothing. There won’t be messengers that clothe heavenly decrees; and therefore, the objects of our fears will simply cease to exist. As R’ Nachman concludes in L.M. 15:2: וְזֶהוּ שֶׁהָאָדָם מְפַחֵד אֶת עַצְמוֹ מֵאֵיזֶה דָבָר מִשַּׂר אוֹ מִגַּנָּבִים וּשְׁאָר פְּחָדִים זֶה הוּא שֶׁהַיִּרְאָה נִתְלַבֵּשׁ בְּזֶה הַדָּבָר כִּי אִם לֹא הָיָה נִתְלַבֵּשׁ הַיִּרְאָה בְּזֶה הַדָּבָר לֹא הָיָה כֹּחַ בְּזֶה הַדָּבָר לְהַפְחִיד אֶת הָאָדָם (And this is why a person fears a particular thing, e.g. a government official, thieves, and other things, it is because yirah has clothed itself in that thing, because if yirah had not clothed itself in that thing, that thing wouldn’t have the power to frighten the person). But the purpose is not to frighten us for the sake of fear itself. The higher purpose is to provoke us to do teshuvah. Therefore, when we find ourselves experiencing fear, we should understand its cause, and immediately intensify the quality (and quantity) of our hitbodedut. A loving Father is sending us warnings. Our fears are our alarm bells and they’re going off. The more serious we are about judging ourselves, the more our fears will disappear. (And if you think about it a little bit, you’ll understand why very young children have very few if any fears. They haven’t sinned yet, and as a result, no judgments are being passed against them in the heavenly courts.)

This is the deeper meaning of the Berachah of Mishpat/Din in the Shemoneh Esreh that we pray three times a day: הָשִׁיבָה שׁוֹפְטֵינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁוֹנָה וְיוֹעֲצֵינוּ כְּבַתְּחִלָּה וְהָסֵר מִמֶּנּוּ יָגוֹן וַאֲנָחָה (Restore our judges as at first and our counselors as at the beginning and remove from us agony and moaning). Yes, the plain meaning is as a prayer to reestablish courts of justice that are free from corruption and arbitrariness; however, there is a deeper side to this berachah that we often miss. The deeper side is that we are the judges that we are praying to Hashem to restore! And it is this lack of self-judgment that may very well be the most important cause for most of the corruption in our courts and legal systems today. The thought we should have is as follows: If I were to restore myself to the position of judge, then not only would my personal level of agony and moaning greatly diminish, our collective national level of agony and moaning will also diminish.

Imagine a world without fear. It’s real; it’s not just a pipe dream. It’s in your hands. And no one (other than yourself) can deprive you of it, as it is written (Michah 4:4): וְיָשְׁבוּ אִישׁ תַּחַת גַּפְנוֹ וְתַחַת תְּאֵנָתוֹ וְאֵין מַחֲרִיד כִּי־פִי יְיָ צְבָקוֹת דִּבֵּר (And each man shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and he won’t be scared, for the mouth of Hashem of Hosts spoke).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *