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Reasonable Fear
Imagine walking along the sidewalk in your city and suddenly seeing what you think is a deadly snake. Your reaction is shock, then fear, then relief when you realize it's just a twisted stick, a piece of wood. Now imagine walking in a forest where you know from first-hand accounts that deadly snakes live. As you walk along, you see twisted sticks on the ground. Each time you see a branch on the ground, you're filled with fear, until you identify it as just a piece of wood.

Now let's imagine one more thing: The next day you're walking that same city sidewalk and even though you know you didn't see a deadly snake yesterday, yet still you anticipate - you fear - seeing that snake today. Why? Because you thought you saw it yesterday.

Would we not say this is an unreasonable fear, while imagining that every stick in the woods might be a deadly snake is a reasonable fear?

What if there's a news report that a deadly snake escaped from the zoo and was seen in your neighborhood? Is being afraid of every piece of wood on the ground then a reasonable fear?

At a basic level, fear is a necessary survival mechanism. The ability to recognize and respond to danger (flight, fight or freeze) helps us survive in the physical world. And, as we shall see, it helps us survive spiritually.

But so many of our fears are false fears or unreasonable fears. When we fear things we can't control - whether of natural or human origin - that's an unreasonable fear. In fact, we often create fear from perils we believe are real - ghosts of our feelings - but have little basis in current reality or from past experiences taken out of context. (Being careful of deadly snakes sitting on rocks makes sense in the forest. It doesn't make sense in a city, though there are rocks there, too.)

In fact, harboring and generating such fears can actually endanger us, because spending time and energy with false fears, with fear beyond our control, with unreasonable fear, distracts us from "clear and present danger" and drains our ability to respond to real threats that we can actually do something about.

There are two spiritual lessons in all this, two things we can learn that apply to our Divine Service, our task of transforming the world. First, we know that we can exaggerate a reasonable concern into an unreasonable fear, turning some issue - political, economic, personal - from a matter of discussion and debate into paranoia. (And of course the unscrupulous exploit that tendency.)
We can also reverse the process, by focusing our energy and imagination on the positive, on the transformative acts of goodness and kindness within our grasp and within our power. This accords with a Chasidic saying, from the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, "Think good, and it will be good." One explanation of this: We can create the reality we imagine, for our actions follow our thoughts.

The second lesson has to do with fear itself. We know we should fear G-d; we should also fear only G-d. The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe was arrested by the Communists in 1927 because he insisted on teaching Judaism and supporting Jewish institutions. The Communists tried to frighten him as they had many others, by threatening to shoot him. His response: "That 'toy' can frighten a person who has many gods but only one world. But for me there are many worlds but only one G-d."

Ultimately, the only fear, the reasonable fear, is Fear of G-d.
 

 


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