Columns Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

What was the president really saying last night?

Immigrants from Honduras and Guatemala seeking asylum arrive at the bus station after they were processed and released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on June 21, 2018, in McAllen, Texas. President Trump signed an executive order to end family separations at the border. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Did you watch the President’s speech last night?

If so, then you might have noticed something.

Its main theme was fear. Fear of “them.” Fear of being overrun. Fear of crime. Fear of drugs. Fear of….

Whatever else you might want to say about his speech, whatever other inquiries you might want to make into the veracity of his remarks, that was what was going on.

Pure, unadulterated fear. His speech was a binder bulging with fears.

Fears have a way of becoming pathological. When that happens, they become phobias.

Phobias have a way of migrating into hatred — to the extent that we often confuse phobia with hatred, as in homophobia, Judeophobia…

Oh, right.

Xenophobia. The fear of foreigners/the hatred of foreigners.

So, let’s talk about fear.

Let’s study a passage of Talmud that teaches us about different kinds of fears.

If you have a fear of studying Talmud — Talmudphobia — try to shed it.

At least for a few moments.

The Talmud (Shabbat 77b) tells us there are four kinds of fear (eimah), in which the strong fears the weak:

  • when the scorpion fears the spider;
  • when the elephant fears the mosquito;
  • when the eagle fears the swallow;
  • and when the lion fears the gnat.
  • (there is actually a fifth fear — when a huge sea monster fears a small fish, but you get the idea).

What is going on here?

Let’s take each fear, one at a time.

The scorpion fears the poisonous spider. We can understand why the scorpion would be afraid of the poisonous spider.

Yes, the spider is comparatively small. But, despite its small size, the spider can inflict a mortal wound.

The elephant fears the mosquito. Again, we can understand why the scorpion would be afraid of the spider. But, the elephant has no rational reason to fear the mosquito.

So, why is the elephant afraid of the mosquito? When the mosquito travels up the elephant’s trunk and drives it crazy. The mosquito is, relatively speaking, a mere nuisance — but a painful one.

The eagle fears the sparrow. Again, why?

RASHI, the eleventh century commentator, explains that the sparrow creeps underneath the wings of the eagle and hinders it from spreading its wings — thus preventing it from flying.

When the lion fears the gnat. The lion has nothing to fear from the gnat, right?

Here, again, RASHI has something to teach us. “The gnat might be a small animal, but it makes a loud sound.” Therefore, the lion becomes intimidated.

I submit this mini-Talmud lesson to you so that you can think about your own fears, American fears, and yes, American Jewish fears and Israeli fears.

Jewish fears? There are many, and there have always been many: fear of anti-semitism, fear of anti-Zionism, fear of not being able to make a distinction between the two, fear that the two are actually the same, fear of our demographic shrinkage, fear of assimilation.

In which categories of fears would you locate American Jewish fears? Are we a strong community, and how irrational, therefore, are our fears?

For here is what I have discerned. We have two tribes in America: the fearists, and the non-fearists. Those who love their own fears, and those who want to transcend those fears.

Israeli fears? Fear of international isolation, fear of BDS, fear of our young people protesting Birthright, fear of Palestinian terror, fear of Iran, fear of the internal divisions in Israeli society and political life.

In some cases, these are fears that a strong party has of a weaker party. Our young people protesting Birthright? At the moment, it feels like lion vs. gnat.

In other cases, like Iran — the fear is not irrational.

American fears — of what is happening on our border?

Frankly, I don’t see those fears falling into any Talmudic category of fears. Frankly, I don’t understand those fears — other than good old xenophobia.

That is what I fear — that fear will paralyze our ability to think creatively, compassionately, and communally.

The same is true with the American Jewish community. It has been my experience that when communities allow fear to determine planning, they lose the ability to think expansively.

God has many different names. There is one name of God that we find in Genesis that is particularly odd.

It is Pachad Yitzchak — Isaac’s fear.

It is as if Isaac experienced his momentary fear of his father Abraham’s knife as a moment of divine encounter — and that at least one generation of his descendants also identified that terror with God.

I do know that this is not a great God. Nor is it a sustainable God for our children and grandchildren.

Finally, I would share this quote from the Reform movement’s siddur, Mishkan T’filah:

We pray that we may live — not by our fears, but by our hopes; not by our words, but by our deeds.

What scares me?

People who like to be scared.

 

 

 

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.