April 21, 2024
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Fear Is Acceptable, Panic Is Not

On the verge of entering Israel, Moshe launched a reconnaissance mission by dispatched 12 spies. The Jews couldn’t possibly conquer the hotly-contested land of Israel without accurate intel. Presumably, Moshe expected honest reporting. What made this incident so notorious? Why did it wreck the march toward the promised land, reroute the Jews for an additional 38 years and reshape the arc of Jewish history?

Moshe had dispatched agents to gather hard facts and their alarming discoveries warranted reassessment, precautions and adopting new military tactics. However, these findings did not justify the wide-scale panic and fright which spooked an entire nation. Life commonly presents both adversity and seemingly “insurmountable” challenges, and the acquisition of the land of Israel is no different. However, trials and adversity demand calm reactions, not panic and dread. Regrettably, the responses—both of the actual spies as well as the riled-up populace—are driven by fear and anxiety, rather than resolve and confidence.

The story of the spies includes three “panicked” overreactions.

 

Irrational Fears

It is one thing to fear the military might of the local chieftains. Similarly, concerns about impregnable walls and rocky landscapes are all warranted. However, it is ridiculous to assume that a particular region or a particular climate is toxic or deadly. This type of irrational fear would be foolish for anyone, but is even more bizarre for a nation which had survived a year of lethal plagues in Egypt and had thrived for over a year under extreme desert conditions. Life may be more rugged in this land of giants and of outsized fruit, but it is ludicrous to imagine a land actually consuming its inhabitants. Panic distorts reason and clouds judgment, duping us into irrational thoughts.

 

Obsession About ‘Others’

The towering giants made the spies feel like tiny human-shaped grasshoppers. This feeling of intimidation is understandable and legitimate, but their ensuing comments aren’t: “… and the locals viewed us this way (as grasshoppers) as well!” How could the spies possibly determine how they were being viewed by the locals? In fact, 40 years later, Rachav—a local woman living in the city gates—reported that the entire population was terrified by the news of the approaching nation which had traversed the Red Sea. Evidently, the locals were more frightened by these “grasshoppers,” than the spies could ever have imagined.

When we become overwhelmed with dread, we often agonize or obsess over how we are viewed by others and this preoccupation can—itself—be crippling. Unhealthy panic causes us to think “outward” about others and less “inward” about ourselves, our resources and strategies for overcoming a crisis. Debilitating panic takes us “outside” ourselves into the thoughts of others, thereby, incapacitating potential resolutions.

 

Projection

Humans have a difficult time acknowledging their own flaws and faults. One “easy” coping mechanism is to “project” our flaws onto others, allowing us to face them “more easily.” Though we constantly project, when we panic, the process—sometimes—becomes preposterous. Devarim summarizes the meraglim incident and mentions that the angry mob accused Hashem of duplicity. In truth, the conspiracy theory went, God despised them and knew that He couldn’t deliver the land of Israel. He only liberated them from Egypt to murder them in the desert! These were the dark truths being proposed by the conspiracy theorists.

While there could be many “motives” for the overall divine plan, it is absolutely delusional to imagine that the entire redemptive process was merely divine manipulation—setting us up for slaughter. All of God’s efforts, the miracles, the splitting of the sea, the desert protection and delivery of Torah were, somehow, envisioned as divine forgery? How could they imagine that all this effort was driven by presumed divine hatred?

Truth be told, God didn’t hate us, but—in reality—these protestors hated God. The dissenters were projecting their own hatred for God, upon God! This laughable “projection” is a direct and tragic consequence of uncontrollable panic. Panic lays bare our deepest fears and flaws, and we cope by projecting these shortcomings upon those closest to us.

We, typically, view religious faith as a method of responding to life’s difficult questions, such as the suffering of the righteous or our long historical exile. In addition, faith should steady us against the overreactions of panic. Faith should allow us to take long-term views and not fall prey to the fear of the “immediate.” Faith should never render us passive or ignorant of practical concerns. However, abject dread and panic ignores God’s role and eliminates destiny from the equation. Pragmatism, practical measures and precautions are all synchronous with faith—panic is not. Faith should provide calm and poise, not panic and dread.

The tragedy of the spies showcases the corrosive effect of panic. Their pointless whining and excessive fear condemned them to a long journey through a hot desert.

During the summer of 2014, our people experienced the horrific kidnapping and murder of the three high school boys in Gush Etzion. A well-known rabbi in the United States of America blamed the parents for their murder. The choice of these parents to educate their children in Gush Etzion—a dangerous area—was responsible for this tragedy. You can imagine the public and justifiable outcry against this very insensitive and theologically troubling statement. I composed a response to these ugly words which I entitled, “Why I agree with this rabbi’s statement.”

I fundamentally agree that parents have a responsibility to provide for the safety and security of their children. To underscore my point, I compiled the statistics of non-natural deaths of adolescent males in Gush Etzion in the summer of 2014. I compared those figures with the number of non-natural deaths of adolescent males in the home district of the rabbi in the United States of America. Accounting for crime, drug-related and vehicular deaths, the numbers were lopsided—it was far more dangerous to live in that community of the United States of America in the summer of 2014 than it was in Gush Etzion. That rabbi had a parental responsibility to relocate his children to the safer environment in Gush Etzion.

Terror is, primarily, a psychological weapon and it must be confronted psychologically. Of course, we must always implement precautionary safety measures to ensure maximal security. However, if our panic frightens us into paralysis or retreat, we have awarded terror its victory. By doing so, we also expose glaring deficiencies in our faith.


The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a masters degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

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