Fear Itself

Chukat, Numbers 19:1−22:1

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Joel M. Mosbacher

Focal Point

They marched on and went up the road to Bashan, and Og king of Bashan, with all his people, came out to Edrei to engage them in battle. But Adonai said to Moses, “Do not fear him. . . .” (Numbers 21:33–34)

D'var Torah

Thirty-eight of the forty years of the Exodus journey go by virtually unnoticed in this Torah portion. These years must have been filled with the same kinds of struggle, strife, and unrest that characterize the two years that the Torah does tell us about. But what happens during these years remains a mystery to us, and how Moses handles the challenges that arise during this time can only be surmised.

As the journey nears its end, the Israelites begin to meet and battle nations on the outskirts of the Promised Land. They defeat Sihon, king of the Amorites, and even the great king of Moab. As they turn north and face yet another great enemy, they look once again to Moses to lead them into battle.

The most prominent feature of Moses’s leadership throughout his time as guide of the Jewish people is the fearlessness with which he leads them. From striking the brutal Egyptian taskmaster dead to staring down Pharaoh; from placing himself physically between God and the Israelites after Aaron and the people build the Golden Calf to patiently handling the overwhelming task of managing the more than two million Israelites on their wilderness journey, Moses is an exemplar of courageous leadership unlike any other. And here in Chukat, when called upon to serve as commander-in-chief, he succeeds brilliantly.

This is what makes the content of Numbers 21:33–34, our focal point, so surprising. Why does God feel the need to instruct Moses not to be afraid? Have we ever witnessed any sign of fear from Moses before?

We see self-doubt in Moses at the outset of the Book of Exodus. When God calls to him at the Burning Bush, Moses hesitates to take up the mantle of leadership. And in fact, in Exodus 2:14, after Moses strikes down the taskmaster, the Torah tells us that “Moses was frightened, and thought: Then the matter is known!” Moses fears that he may be punished for his actions.

In Studies in Bamidbar (Jerusalem: Haomanim Press), Nehama Leibowitz suggests that we can understand Moses’s fear in Egypt, before he speaks to God. And, we can comprehend his fear when he witnesses God’s power for the first time, at the Burning Bush. But here, thirty-eight years later, after God entrusts him with the mission of leading the Israelites into freedom, after he leads them across the Red Sea, and after he sees God face-to-face on Mount Sinai, we expect that Moses will no longer feel such trepidation. After he comes down from the mountain, aglow from the Presence of Adonai , the last trait we would attribute to Moses is apprehension.

But if the Torah records God’s telling Moses not to be afraid, we can infer that, indeed, Moses is scared that Og and his people might defeat the Israelites after all.

This passage shows us that Moses’s anxiety and self-doubt are never totally eliminated. Although he may wear a confident expression to lead the people, hiding his trepidation and fear from them—and perhaps even from himself—God, the All-Knowing, sees into the depths of his heart. Knowing that Moses is fearful, God reassures him, telling him not to be afraid.

Perhaps it is the same with us. We grow and move forward from stage to stage. We evolve from the concerns of our youth and face the ever-present curves that life throws at us. At best, our character strengths drive us to reach greater heights, embrace challenges, and dream of promised lands yet unseen.

At the same time, like Moses, we try to hide our weaknesses, finesse our shortcomings, and “power through” that which haunts us.

God calls upon Moses to use his extraordinary gifts to lead the people through the wilderness. So, too, God remembers that Moses’s soul has cracks, empty places that echo with fear. And God stands by Moses, bringing him comfort when those cracks threaten to rip open.

So may it be with us. We are called by our humanness and our godliness to stretch and strive and create and build. May we search deeply within ourselves to find strengths we never knew we had. And in those darker times, when our fear threatens to overcome us, let us remember that God is nearby, to bring us strength, to hear the cries our hearts can’t hide.

By the way . . .

  • First of all let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear . . . is fear itself . . . nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
    In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days. In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties. (Excerpt from the Inaugural Speech of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Washington, D.C., March 4th, 1933)
  • Judge every person charitably. ( Pirkei Avot 1:6)
  • Into God’s hands I entrust my spirit, / when I sleep and when I wake; / and with my spirit, my body also: / Adonai is with me, I will not fear. (Last stanza of Adon Olam , composed by Solomon ibn Gabirol)

Your Guide

  1. How do Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s words resonate with you more than seventy years later? What are your fears?
  2. Is it really possible to give every person “the benefit of the doubt?” How might the world be a different place if we really sought out the good in each person?
  3. What do the last lines of Adon Olam mean to you? Have there been times in your life when you felt that you had put your soul or your body in God’s hands?
Reference Materials

Chukat, Numbers 19:1-22:1
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,145-1,164; Revised Edition, pp. 1,022-1,042
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 915–936