Rabbi Dov Gartenberg
Kol Nidre Sermon: Five Kinds of Fear
Text of BT Shabbat 77b: Our Rabbis taught: there are five instances of fear that allows the weak to rule over the strong: the fear of the weasel over the lion; the fear of the mosquito upon the elephant; the fear of the spider upon the scorpion; the fear of the swallow upon the eagle; the fear of the stickleback fish over the Leviathan.
This is an eerie text. So old, but so completely contemporary. It is a text that describes the fears created by terrorism through its catalogue of the intimidations of the weak over the strong. How do the strong become fearful? Why do the weak come to dominate the strong?
I first heard this text applied to the predicament of Israelis in their daily coping with the reality of terrorism. But the text speaks to us as Americans in light of our recent trauma. The horrific events in New York and Washington D.C. have caused us to experience the fear of the strong before the weak. This ancient text illuminates the harsh realities of living with terrorism and the fear it provokes. By honestly confronting the fears stirred up by terrorism, we begin to find ways to overcome them.
The first of the fears cast by the weak over the strong is the fear of the weasel or Mafgia over the lion. There is a difference among scholars on what the mafgia is. Rashi in his commentary on the Talmud suggests that the Mafgia is a small animal with a big voice. When the lion hears its voice, it runs away fearing a big beast. Others argue that is it a zorilla. The zorilla is a weasel that like its cousin, the skunk, emits a spray with a noxious smell. This spray or the threat of its use repulses its larger predators.
What is the nature of this fear? The very presence of the zorilla paralyzes the lion with fear. The zorilla does not even have to spritz the lion. The lion simply will not approach it. The lion develops a preexisting fear of the zorilla. Upon seeing the zorilla, the lion runs away. The lion cannot fulfill its natural role. It loses its aura of strength.
The specter of terror can also paralyze us. Once we witness terror we develop a preexisting fear. We become fearful of approaching it. But the goal of the terrorist is to create the sense he can be anywhere and everywhere. We become fearful of approaching a situation where terror is possible, conceivable. Like the lion we become fearful. We run away. We become cowardly in our everyday lives. This is the demoralization caused by terror. The goal of the terrorist is to scare as many individuals as possible so that the collective will is undermined and demoralized. The more people who act cowardly is good in their eyes. Once most individuals in a community or a nation become afraid and demoralized they can be intimidated or even defeated.
The unprecedented terror campaign of the current intifada against Israel has sought to demoralize both Israel citizens and to weaken the collective will of the country. They certainly have succeeded in intimidating many of us from going to Israel, and they have demoralized many individual Israelis. But Israelis as a collective will not be intimidated.
The second example is the fear of the mosquito upon the elephant. The mosquito can't kill the elephant, but it can drive it crazy. It flies up the elephant’s trunk and buzzes around in the cavity causing the elephant great discomfort. The elephant violently slams its trunk onto the ground or against a tree to dislodge the mosquito. In attempting to expunge the mosquito the elephant may cause itself greater injury.
The terrorist provokes by attacking us in the most vulnerable places. He will not hesitate to kill the innocent. He will seek to destroy in the most outrageous and horrifying way. He does not take these actions impulsively. Rather he is very calculating in making his lethal plans.
His goal is to make us crazy. Our initial response to an attack is tremendous rage and astonishment. We become consumed with the desire for revenge. We are dazed and cannot think clearly. We take aim at the easiest target. But there is no easy target. This was the plan of the terrorist from the outset. He makes sure that the easiest target is not himself, but those who when attacked will react against us with their own horror and rage. The retaliation creates new victims and new adherents for the cause of the terrorist. The newly aggrieved will see him as the only hope against the bully. Thus the terrorist creates a cycle of attack and vicious counterattack.
In an effort to respond to the murderous provocations of terrorists, we may injure ourselves morally. To what extent do we damage ourselves when in the name of security we curtail rights and freedoms? What happens to our national character when we tolerate discrimination of certain groups and types of persons in the name of national security? How seriously do we injure ourselves when our military response miss the mark and kill civilians instead of terrorists?
How do we balance moral restraint with the necessities of warfare against an enemy that is so hard to find?
The third example is the fear of the spider upon the scorpion.
The spider is small and normally harmless to the scorpion, but by trapping it in its web it can kill the scorpion. The scorpion when trapped cannot use its overwhelmingly superior weapon of its stinger. The scorpion, therefore, cannot ignore the seemingly harmless spider because it has the potential, even if remote, to disable and kill the scorpion. The spider is nimble; it patiently lays a trap; so it is difficult to destroy. The scorpion must be vigilant and careful.
After September 11th, we are very much aware of the traps that terrorists can lay for us. We know they are patient and determined. We know that they carefully prepare their actions. Before September 11th, they knew they had the advantage of total surprise. But now, painfully, we are more aware. One of the changes we must adapt to in this new world is the need for vigilance. Not only must our military and policeman be alert, but ordinary people have to be watchful. It is something that takes getting used to.
In 1979 I lived in Israel in an apartment in Jerusalem. On my birthday my friends came to my pad to deliver a birthday cake. I was not at home, so they left the package in front of my door. When I came back home I wasn’t allowed back into my apartment I noticed my neighbors standing behind a police line in front of the building. I found out later that police sappers were making sure that my birthday cake was not a bomb. When you live with terrorism, you learn to be safety conscious. It becomes a way of life. America has become more like Israel. All my years in Israel have prepared me well for what is happening now in America.
The fourth case is the fear of the swallow upon the eagle.
Eagles are too ponderous for effective aerial pursuit but try to surprise and overwhelm their prey on the ground. Therefore, the swallow stays in the air and gets close to the Eagle to both preserve its life, but also to diminish the strength of the eagle while in flight. According to Rashi the swallow creeps underneath the wings of the eagle and hinders it from spreading its wings. Thus the swallow prevents the eagle from using its strength and hinders it from soaring in the sky.
We have been ambushed. We can no longer spread our wings. We are wounded. We literally fly with trepidation. Our cell phones and our answering machines once technological conveniences have become tainted tools of the Malach Hamavet. Our skyscrapers, our temples to modernity, have all become towers of babel to hateful false gods who will do anything to topple them and us to the ground.
But it is not only our technological wings that have been clipped. Despite the heroics, the courage, and the compassion that we witnessed in these past two weeks, we cannot escape the fact that this war will drain resources. We will divert our attention from the many important causes to fight a war that will be costly in human and material resources. What about the environment? What about the poor? What about the other needs crying out to be addressed. They will by necessity go neglected at the very time we should pay heed. What will be the cost? What will be the price? What will be the result of our new blindness? What is the meaning of the image of the eagle that cannot spread its wings? It refers to the lost opportunities to better our world caused by our onerous duty to war against the terrorist.
The last example is the fear of the stickleback fish over the Leviathan.
According to the commentaries the Hebrew, Kilbith, is a stickelback fish. It is a small, 6 inch long fish. It is able to provoke fear in the largest, mightiest creature on this earth.
This final example demonstrates the asymmetric power of terrorism. The smallest band of terrorists can create the maximal amount of destruction and fear. A group of probably less than 100 persons has completely changed the world and set in motion a maelstrom that may engulf is all in ways we cannot predict.
The Leviathan is a symbol in Jewish lore of both the apocalyptic era and the messianic age. Certainly, the recent events have raised within all of us apocalyptic fears. At the same time, our hopes for the messianic age have been deferred. We now know the world is a lot more dangerous and angry place than we did a couple of weeks ago. This new fear is so difficult to bear and is the one hardest to overcome.
In the face of these terrible fears, how do we tap into our strength?
First there is the strength found in seeking to live normal lives.
Is there an antidote to these terrible fears? Certainly there is no quick fix. But I think the first step is to name the fears, to begin to understand them. With understanding, we can take necessary precautions both as individuals and as a nation. Then each of us has to decide how to resume our normal lives. Tom Friedman writes about a friend, George Beaver, a crazy Englishman who played golf in his 80s in the war torn Beirut of 20 years ago. As Beirut burned from car bombs and suicide bombers Friedman would ask his friend, “You know, George, it’s crazy to play golf under such conditions.” He always had the best answer: “I know I am crazy to do it, but I would be even crazier if I didn’t.”
Second is the strength found in acts of courage and coming together for the common good.
We have seen in these last two weeks a country that craves heroism. The bravery and sacrifice of the firemen and the police has been truly inspiring. The compassionate generosity of the nation for the victims has also been extraordinary. The most amazing courage was demonstrated on the last plane when the passengers realized that they had to sacrifice their lives to save others on the ground. These ill-fated, innocent people had learned their fate, realized their strength in numbers, and took out the terrorists at the cost of their lives.
Third, we realize our strength lies in what we stand for. We must also realize our strength arises from understanding the moral evil and the danger presented by our foes.
Unlike the creatures in our text we are strong not because of our fundamental nature. We are strong because of the values, the moral principles, and the political ideals that are at its foundation. . We are strong to the extent that America unites its power with its principles. Our commitment to freedom, human rights, and democracy must never waiver. Our fight against tyranny, religious coercion, and totalitarianism must guide us through these dark days against a determined and fanatic foe.
As Jews we find ourselves very much at the center of this new conflict. Israel’s future will be profoundly affected by the outcome of these coming years. The Islamic fundamentalists are not only at war against America. They are at war with Israel. An selection from an editorial in the New Republic bears repeating: “ The common view is that bin Laden is seeking to punish America for its association with Israel, but the contrary is also the case. He wishes also to punish Israel (and the Jews generally) for being so remorselessly American, that is, so secular, so liberal, so enthralled by enlightenment, so unimpeded by the burdens of the past. Israel poses the same threat to bin Laden’s picture of the world, the same challenge to his horror of liberty and equality, as the United States does. ….. For this reason, the terrorist war against the United States and the terrorist war against Israel is the same war.”
Israel is strong, but its true strength also lie in its commitment to principles. Zionism was an enterprise to gain power for the Jews, to make the Jews strong. But to be authentic Jewishly it required that the moral excellence of Judaism be integral to its vision. Leon Wieseltier wrote, “If there are many crimes that Jews did not commit in their history, it was in part because they did not have the power to commit them, but now there are many crimes that they have the power to commit and they have not committed them. There is no such thing as a spotless state, and there is innocent blood on Israeli hands; but historically and philosophically, this nationalism has been a critical nationalism. It defends itself and it denounces itself. It will not be panicked out of its aspiration for justice.”
Israel now faces great trials. But the citizens of Israel have the right to question its policies and to change directions. I believe that Israel is prepared for peace and difficult compromises when it is convinced that its Palestinian partner is willing to do the same. Its partner cannot turn to terror to intimidate Israel into making concessions that will compromise its security or its survival.
Let us understand our enemies. Some extremist branches of Islam have declared war against America. Extremist Muslims have been at war against Israel much longer. They remain committed to pushing Israel into the sea. The question of the day is after September 11th can a moderate and modernizing Islam stand up to its extremists and join the American alliance to diminish its power and to destroy its terrorist soldiers. Is there still a basis for peace between moderate Israelis and moderate Palestinians? Or is it too late?
A new agenda has been placed before American Jews. What is our relationship to the American Islamic community? What is our relationship with Arab Americans? We will be first to stand up for their rights and protections as Americans. But is it possible for us to have a meaningful dialogue with their community about Israel, about pluralism, about tolerance? What is the role of fundamentalism in our faith communities? How do we fight against its distortions of tradition and its rejection of modernity? Is there a real chance of dialogue? Or must we continue to remain apart and distrustful of each other. I will work to establish a mutual dialogue and encounter between our two communities. Maybe the world has changed enough for this to happen.
In psalm 139: 19 the psalmist struggles with the reality of evil done in the name of God. Perhaps our sheltered generation that came after the Nazis and Stalin’s Russia will now understand the desperate tone of this psalm as it confronts the shattering reality evil and the terrorizing of its practitioners.
O God, if You would only slay the wicked-
you murderers, away from me!-
who invoke You for intrigue,
Your enemies who swear by You falsely.
Cruelty performed by evil persons in the name of God arouses the palmist’s righteous indignation. He appeals to God for justice, but he fears the justifications of his enemies. They both pray to the same God, so the psalmist seeks God’s reassurance that He sees through the vain prayers and invocations of the wicked.
O Lord, You know I hate those who hate You,
and loath Your adversaries.
I feel a perfect hatred toward them;
I count them my enemies.
The psalmist explodes with anger, expressing his Tachlit Sinah- a perfect hatred for his enemies. On contemplating their wicked acts he is filled with antipathy. His adversaries do not only fail to know God, but in reality hate God. Implicit in the psalmist view is that God is good and hates the evildoer. Acts of cruelty are by nature expressions of hatred for God even when the perpetrator of the cruelty acts in God’s name. God’s name is sullied. The psalmist seeks to arouse God’s wrath through his own. But there is a sudden change in the psalmist’s state of mind and he passes from a state of hateful rage to self-reflection.
Examine me, O God, and know my mind;
probe me and know my thoughts.
See if I have vexatious ways,
and guide me in ways everlasting.
The psalmists retreats from his hateful thoughts and seeks God's help in probing his mind and thoughts. What will happen to him if hatred consumes him too? Will he become a monster like his adversaries? So the psalmist asks God to probe and search him. Doubt is a partner in his faith. This is his saving grace, for he knows that he cannot identify his emotions with God. As a human being his emotions are flawed and imperfect. So he doubts his hatred and seeks God’s scrutiny. He then asks God’s help in removing his flaws and to find a more enduring way to live in the world.
These final words of the psalm suggest what we must do this Yom Kippur. We can pray to God to help us overcome our fears. We can pray to God with righteous indignation to punish the wicked. But ultimately we must search our souls for the right response, for moral insight, for balanced judgment, and for strength in the face of adversity. We must scrutinize ourselves so that we may understand our own vexatious ways. We pray to God to curb our excesses, to overcome the desire for blind revenge, to see clearly, and to act effectively for good.
It is this self-scrutiny that is the hallmark of a great, modest, courageous, and moral faith. I pray that good people around the world, members of countless faiths, will resist the evil forces unleashed in our world. May more people in this world discover each in their own way the God of justice, goodness and compassion and turn away from the false gods of hatred and resentment.