Containing Fear

Some people see the world as rational and ordered, and yet bad things happen. Others see the world as a chaotic and unpredictable place full of terrible things. Some see the world in the control of God and the things that happen have a reason even if it is not comprehensible to mere mortals. Others see the world as having been created and set in motion by God but no longer directed by God.

These are just a few of the ways we interpret and try to make sense of our world. These viewpoints have embedded strategies for containing fear. We employ denial, pushing thoughts about scary things away – if I don’t think about it, it doesn’t exist. This is most easily done if one keeps very, very busy. We just avoid dealing with the things that frighten us. For some, the fear controls their decision making; people who won’t get on a plane, or go to Israel, or speak in a group.  Others believe that God is in control or has a master plan and whatever happens is God’s will.

An example of a reaction to fear is in this week’s parsha, Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11 – 34:35, the Children of Israel build the Golden Calf. The tradition speaks of the “sin of the Golden Calf” which we (or at least I) have understood to be the sin of idol worship. My previous interpretation of this story was that the people were not yet ready for such an abstract God and needed a “transitional” object. In rereading the parsha, it seems that they were just as likely trying to manage their fear. Their fear of the unknown, their fear of abandonment by Moses, and their fear of vulnerability.

In ancient and modern times, worship rituals help make the world feel less frightening. Sacrifices and prayer give a sense of control. For instance, one can pray to effect change in order to eliminate the source of fear or pray for strength to face their fears. In Harold Kushner’s book, “Conquering Fear.” Kushner introduces the notion of an eleventh commandment, al tir-ah-u – Do not be afraid (Ex. 20: 17). The sin of the Golden Calf is being afraid.

Yet fear is an important self-defense mechanism. That is why we go inside during thunderstorms. Fear may even keep risk-taking to safe levels. When is it a sin to be afraid? Being afraid by itself is a feeling while sins are usually actions or inactions that are "wrong." But being afraid may not just be a feeling. Just as coveting is a feeling of overwhelming jealousy that leads to sinful behavior, it is possible to let fear overwhelm us and lead us to do the wrong thing. In that case, it is a sin that leads to another sin.

All of us have something(s) that we fear – snakes, bats, public speaking, the dark. Some of us fear being alone, or a lengthy illness, or death.

So what are you afraid of and is it a healthy fear, or an overwhelming fear, a fear that holds you back from living fully? How do you recognize your fear and face it? When you feel that fear, how do you control it so that it doesn’t control you? The Jewish Studio offers some solutions. Join us for prayer or a session of mindfulness. Together, we can create containers for our fear. 

JoHanna Potts