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  • Andres Spokoiny

What We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself (Passover 5780)

Pantaphobia is a very rare medical condition in which the patient feels absolutely no fear.


Thanks to a middle-aged American woman known to science as SM-046, who in the mid-‘90s the media dubbed “the woman with no fear” and whose brain scans were examined by doctors, we know that this condition is caused by damage to the amygdala, the section of our brain that regulates primal emotions and instinctual reactions.


Due to her complete absence of fear, SM-046 would find movies like “The Silence of the Lambs” or “The Blair Witch Project” bland and would giggle her way through haunted houses. Things would also turn hardcore: She had an irresistible curiosity to touch poisonous snakes, and once, confronted by a knife-wielding assailant, she was merely surprised and calmly walked away instead of running for her life. The fact that SM-046 even made it to middle age is nothing short of a miracle.


Fear is a survival mechanism; without it we would constantly put ourselves in danger. Not only is fear omnipresent, but our brains are trained to exaggerate it and to etch it in our consciousness. Neurologists claim that fear is, probably, one of the most powerful behavioral motivators, and sometimes, like in battle, the only way of vanquishing one fear is by replacing it with a stronger one.


But fear not only protects us, it sometimes makes us do things we wouldn’t otherwise do, things that we find disgusting, repulsive, or morally reprehensible. And that’s how the Passover story starts.


The enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, a land where they had been generously received during a famine, started simply because the Egyptians were afraid. “Come,” said Pharaoh “we must deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase even more; and if a war breaks out, they may join our enemies… So the Egyptians appointed taskmasters over the Israelites to oppress them with forced labor.”


The Exodus is not historical narrative, but modern research seems to justify Pharaoh’s fears. Around the supposed time of the Exodus, Egypt was being routinely attacked by the “Sea Peoples,” marauding tribes from the Aegean that wreaked havoc all over the Levant. It’s not completely implausible that the Hebrews might have decided to side with the invaders. A cruel Pharaoh, however, used that fear to his advantage and enslaved the Israelites for his own benefit; “to build Pithom and Ramses, stores cities for Pharaoh.”


Thus, fear turned the otherwise hospitable Egyptians into cruel slavers. Without that fear, it probably would have been impossible for the average Egyptian to justify the enslavement of their neighbors. Pharaoh used his people’s fear to justify the unjustifiable. No fear, no Passover.


In fact, the worst deeds of humanity have been justified by fear. How did the Germans tolerate Nazism? Hitler managed to instill in them enough fear; fear of economic crisis, of national dissolution, of Communism, of Jewish conspiracies and so forth. He then transformed fear into hatred, and we know the rest. Fear turns civilized individuals into cruel survival machines. A callous leader is always around, waiting to manipulate that fear and use it for his own benefit.

Jews are not immune to that either. When Moses spent 40 days atop Mount Sinai (maybe the original quarantine, since this word derives from the Latin for 40), the Israelites feared he had died. A few ringleaders exploited that dread and created the golden calf. A people that just a few weeks before had witnessed the miracle of liberation did the unthinkable and worshipped an Egyptian idol. All because of fear.


Today, entire political careers on both ends of the spectrum are built on fear: of losing one’s job to an immigrant; of crime; of terrorism; of losing social protections; of “losing the national character”; of losing religious freedom; of losing one’s beloved assault rifles. As the scholar Bernard Lewis has keenly noted, Islamic fundamentalism is actually a movement of fear: fear of losing the cultural battle against the triumphant West; of losing the “purity of Islam” to the temptations of modernity. It doesn’t matter that this “purity” never actually existed, or that immigration is actually a driver of economic growth, or that free enterprise in fact benefits the whole of society, because fear is irrational. We can be sure that when there’s a fear, there’s somebody ready to exploit it.


Today we see how fear is making us uncritically accept things that, a few days ago, we considered unthinkable. Over the past few weeks, most Americans, fierce defenders of their liberty, quietly gave up three key constitutional freedoms: of movement, of assembly, and of free enterprise. Unruly, disobedient Israelis let their government impose universal surveillance without even a Knesset vote (the Supreme Court forced that vote later). I’m not saying for a second that those measures aren’t necessary; they are and, if anything, they should have been taken earlier; and, of course, Western governments are mostly using these restrictions in good faith for the public good and not as a general assault of freedom. But my point is another one: how easy it was for us, in times of great fear, to accept things that we wouldn’t have otherwise dreamed of accepting.


Tyrants like Pharaoh have known that all along. And now, aspiring dictators like Hungary’s Victor Orban, have demanded the right to suspend the constitution and govern by decree, “because of the emergency.” They all know that when people are afraid, it takes just a little push to bring the social contract down like a house of cards. As neuroscientists will tell you, fear suspends rationality; because the amygdala, our instinctual brain, overpowers the frontal lobe, the calmer, more rational part of our brains.


It is important to remember that fear, justified or not, is different from pain. Fear is, mostly, a story we tell ourselves, a narrative that our own imaginations — or the cunning manipulations of others — carve in our minds. Sometimes those stories have no basis in reality, or only a tenuous connection to facts. That’s why the main antidote to fear is not bravery but curiosity. How, at our Passover seder, do we respond to hatred and fear? By asking questions. Because questions are the ultimate manifestation of freedom, a courageous plunge into the unknown, a transformation of fear into curiosity. Fear a challenge, an invitation, as Marie Curie said, “to understand more, so that we may fear less.”


The story of Passover shows us, among many other things, the noxious consequences of fear: what fear can do to a society and to a people. Among the many poignant messages of our most foundational holiday, this one is particularly relevant for these times of dread and trepidation. Fear of disease or of economic recession can lead us to sacrifice our values and beliefs. That abandonment of values can be amusing, like in the fights for toilet paper in the supermarket, but it also can make some us say things like “it’s fine to sacrifice the elderly for the sake of the economy.” The hitherto hospitable Egyptians were frightened into accepting slavery, what can we be frightened into tolerating?


Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said it powerfully: “The world is but a narrow bridge, and the most important thing — while crossing it — is to fear not”.

I don’t think Rabbi Nachman wanted us to be like MS-046; after all, thinking that poisonous snakes make cute pets might not get you far in life. But he meant that we Jews, above all people, should never let fear overpower us or eliminate our capacity for discernment and moral judgment.

Our challenge in the face of fear is not to eliminate it, but to remain human and kind; to think of those less fortunate; to keep defending the values we hold dear; to unmask those that will try to manipulate our fears for personal and political gain, those that will want to make us turn on each other instead of towards one another, to transform fear into wisdom through relentless questioning, like we do at the seder.


Today, conquering fear means giving ourselves permission to be hopeful, to believe that we can emerge out of this stronger and better; that our solidarity can keep us together; that our compassion can repair broken lives and even damaged economies. Conquering fear means never surrendering to victimhood and passivity, never thinking that our best days are behind us, never thinking that “the other” is a potential enemy that can beat me in the brutal battle for the last roll of toilet paper.


Conquering fear is necessary, because when this is over and our rational selves re-emerge, we want to look at ourselves in the mirror and not be sickened by what we see.

In the story of the Exodus, fear brought us slavery, but hope, love and compassion redeemed us. It took us “from slavery to freedom, from sorrow to joy, and from mourning to happiness, and from deep darkness to great light.”


Let’s all try to have a chag sameach (happy holiday) even if, or precisely because, it’s not too sameach outside.

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