In this week’s portion, misdirected fear leads to disaster.
Sometimes fear is our friend. Without fear, we’d walk blindly into dangerous situations oblivious to the consequences. But misdirected fear is dangerous. Fear’s emotional pull does not lend itself to cool, thoughtful reflection.
In this week’s portion, misdirected fear leads to disaster. God tells Moses to appoint a blue-ribbon team to scout the land. The party returns after 40 days unharmed.
Yet, on their return, they terrify the Israelites with bone-chilling reports of fierce giants who would crush them like grasshoppers. Once fear is triggered, even by “fake news,” all common sense disappears. So, when Caleb and Joshua try to give a more accurate account, admonishing the people not to fear, the Israelites threaten to pelt the truth tellers with stones.
Finally, God intervenes, sending a plague to eradicate the fearmongering scouts, then proclaiming that the consequence of the people’s lack of faith in everything except their own terror is to wander aimlessly through the desert for 40 years. An entire generation would need to die out before their children could finally enter the land.
Now, one thing as bad as fearing when there’s nothing to fear is foolhardy recklessness when the danger is real. So, when people learned their fate, they attempted to demonstrate their courage by marching on a rogue skirmish into hill country, only to be massacred by Amalekites and Canaanites.
This story is relevant today. The brutal murder of George Floyd was one of countless attacks on innocent African Americans, attacks prompted by prejudice, ignorance and fear. Sometimes even the well-intentioned resort to lethal force out of fear.
Fear can be like lightning, seeking to diffuse its charge at the nearest target: the Chinese student on the street blamed for COVID-19; the black physician pulled off the highway for no reason; the synagogue whose support of HIAS feeds into a nativist conspiracy theory that Jews are masterminding the demographic shift toward a non-white majority.
Foolhardy recklessness is fear’s twin sibling, an equal and opposite reaction as demonstrated by the desperate Israelite attack on the hill country. Ignoring sensible health precautions during a pandemic is also a prime example.
How do we know whether to believe the scouts’ account of potential dangers or the optimistic report of Joshua and Caleb? In our media-overloaded world, we need to cultivate the skill to scrutinize our information channels and evaluate their reliability. We also need to calm our emotional reactions so we can hear the still, small voice of our inner wisdom. On today’s major issues of racism, climate change and virulent new strains of disease, we have already wandered in the wilderness for more than 40 years.
Now is the time to act wisely and compassionately so that both we and our children can enjoy the promise of caring and healthy society.
Rabbi Michael Zimmerman recently retired after 17 years as rabbi of Reconstructionist Congregation Kehillat Israel in Lansing.