Tackling Your Fears

By Menashe Wolf, Brooklyn, NY
Essays 2016

MyLife Essay Contest 2016


Scared of Fear

Fear. Paranoia. Dread. These phobias grip their victims tightly around the neck, weakening their resolve and leaving them short of breath. Like a steep uphill bike ride, a life of fear is tiring, tedious, and crippling. The object of a person’s fear may seem trivial and small, but to them the small dot is awfully close and covers their vision.

To some extent we all suffer from it. Fear is written into the human psyche. In fact, to have no natural sense of fear is perhaps a sickness worse than fear itself. It shows a lack of human spirit and selfconcern. Sometimes, it is a tiny voice in the back of the head whispering a cautious warning against danger. This fear is healthy, and even welcome. Like pain, it serves as a warning against self-harm. But at times it is a loud, screaming siren that overwhelms the person, drowning out any other thoughts. It is debilitating. It can shut the person down and lead them to give up.

I am not talking about physical fear – like the fear you feel when a gun is pointed at you. That fear makes sense. I am talking of the fears that stunt a person’s growth, holding them back from achieving. Fear of failure. Fear of being judged. Fear of public speaking. Fear of flying. Fear of heights. These irrational phobias are real obstacles to personal achievement. There is a famous humorous adage: Most people are more afraid of public speaking than of dying; they’d rather be the dead person in the coffin than the eulogizer. While this is obviously a joke, it speaks volumes of the senseless fears we grapple with.

The worst thing about fear is, that although the person knows that there is no basis to their fear, they are still afraid. When looking out from the 75th floor window, the person knows that they won’t fall but they are still afraid of falling. Since the feeling isn’t rational, no argument can convince them out of their anxiety—they already know it makes no sense. This compounds the problem and makes it extremely difficult to overcome.

There is a beautiful Chassidic teaching from the Baal Shem Tov (Besh”t) that has changed my way of thinking about fear and anxiety and I believe it is a powerful tool to help tackle these emotions.

The Besh”t’s teachings are mostly small bites of fire; inspirational and deep ideas that penetrate the heart and soul. The entire corpus of Chassidic work which followed over the course of more than two centuries until the present can be traced back to these seminal ideas. His seeds of inspiration were nurtured and developed into trees and forests of divine understanding, Torah insights and human depth.


Not a Drug

A word of caution before I continue. If someone has a real phobia, a clinical condition, he/she should seek professional help. Torah provides a framework for living a healthy and balanced life, and many of its ideas can be adapted to solve personal issues. But it is not a doctor’s manual. Just like someone with cancer R”L will not solely rely on the Talmudic statement (Berochos 7a) “R. Joshua b. Levi stated… If he feels pains in his head, let him engage in the study of the Torah… If he feels pains in his throat let him engage in the study of the Torah etc.,” but would also seek treatment from a medical professional. The same should be true of someone suffering a mental condition. It would be irresponsible to seek help only through Jewish or Chassidic texts. But together with the clinical help, the Chassidic ideas can aid in the process of recovery.

Moreover, for the average person who doesn’t suffer clinically from mental illness but experiences fear and anxiety, Chassidic teachings can provide a balanced approach to life that can guide a person towards healthy living in mind, body and soul.


The Baal Shem Tov vs. FDR

Franklin D. Roosevelt famously remarked in his inaugural presidential address: “Fear nothing but fear itself.” If one is completely confident and sure, then there is nothing to fear in the world. All obstacles can be overcome and the most compromising situations can be dealt with. But as remarkable as it sounds, this powerful statement against fear has its self-confessed limits. Fear is still to be feared. One shouldn’t be afraid, but once they are, there is no way out. Confidence can help conquer fearful things, but not fear itself. The irrational nature of fear is not overcome by courage or fought off with strength.

The Besh”t went where FDR could not. He provided a tool to combat fear itself.

Interestingly, one of the earliest episodes we know of the Baal Shem Tov concerns fear. As a child of 5 years, his father passed away leaving him an orphan. His father’s parting words were formative in the young Yisrael’s mind. One may even say that they shaped his life’s mission and were the foundation for his seminal teachings. His father’s remark was similar to that of Roosevelt’s, only slightly different. He said: “Fear nothing but G-d.” Nothing besides G-d should be feared, not even fear itself.

This is an inspirational adage. But it is just that; it’s a line, a saying. It provides no explanation or depth to back itself up. It’s easy to say not to fear anything, but to practice that is a whole lot more difficult. To truly appreciate and live by this principle, we need to dig beneath its surface and uncover its background.

The general understanding of the Besh”t’s father’s final will and testament is predicated on the belief that everything is from Hashem. G-d, the creator of all things, continues to create the world at every instant. He governs the world and arranges its events. Nothing—not even a leaf turning over—is outside of His doing. This is one of the central themes in the Besh”t’s teachings; it lies behind almost all of his ideas. And if one truly believes it—or more accurately, integrates this belief into their life—there is nothing to fear. Everything is from Hashem. Everything is G-d sent. Everything that is, is meant to be. Everything that will happen is meant to happen.

But this broad concept is hard to internalize and apply to real life. It is a challenge to translate the abstract philosophy of non-duality into the daily struggles and fears we face.

A particular teaching of the Besh”t (Keser Shem Tov, paragraphs 38a-b; 180; 207a) addresses fear more specifically. Instead of only supplying the abstract tools and allowing the reader to apply it, the Besh”t proscribes his insight as a way to combat fear. Or better yet – as we shall see – to embrace and redefine fear. This may very well be a commentary on his father’s dying words.


Between Fear and Fear

Fear is an emotion of distance, rooted in loss. It holds a person back and distances them from the object of their fear. While it may stem from a lack of confidence and trust, it is essentially the anxiety of losing something. The person is afraid that they may lose their reputation, money, or lives. They fear what the unknown may rob from them. And so they stay back, keeping their distance from the object of their fear.

But despite fear being seen as a negative emotion, we are instructed in Torah to have fear—fear of Heaven (Devarim 10:20). Why would Hashem want us to exhibit an unhealthy trait? Why are we being encouraged to drown ourselves in this crippling emotion?

The Besh”t suggests that fear of G-d—Yir’as Shamayim—is similar to other fears only in name. The fear we ought to have towards Hashem is of an altogether different quality than our anxieties and fears that we struggle with in life. He classifies it as “inner fear”, as opposed to “external fear”.

We are meant to feel in awe of G-d, not afraid of him. Not only is it spiritually childish and theologically primitive to picture G-d as a mean, angry person in Heaven waiting for an opportunity to strike us down for our misbehavior, but it is also degrading. It degrades the performance of Mitzvos and all of life’s accomplishments to actions of force and results of intimidation. Instead we are meant to have a sense of awe and respect for Hashem’s greatness. Like the feeling you have when in the presence of a powerful and important dignitary; the way you feel when someone you respect and adore walks into the room; what you experience when you witness the overwhelming majesty of nature. When you experience something larger than yourself, you are humbled. You stand in awe of that person/thing. The Mitzvah to fear Hashem should be interpreted as an obligation to recognize His infinite greatness and feel humbled in Its presence; to be in awe of His awesomeness.

But names are significant; the fact that Torah still terms this emotion ‘fear’ is because it does have the same features as fear. It is distancing, and creates a relationship that is built on separation, not closeness. And it is also rooted in loss. The sense of awe you feel is essentially a realization that in the presence of that greatness you don’t exist. Were you to be within the presence of G-d, i.e. immersed in His glory and totally caught up in Him, there would be no room for you. You are like a wave of light in the solar core—insignificant. So the awe and respect is a fear of sorts; the distance is created to avoid losing your independent character.


Embracing Your Fears

It is on this backdrop that the Besh”t paints his magnificent antidote to fear. He reasons that since the two fears are related, we can assume the purpose of one is for the other – after all, everything is from Gd. Hashem causes a person to be afraid—to experience “external fear”—in order to lead and inspire them towards “inner fear”—awe of Hashem. G-d presents intimidating and scary scenarios to the person to shake them up and remind them that they have a capacity of fear, and that it is meant to be channeled towards positive fear—Yir’as Shamayim. This is the inner reason why we feel afraid. This is the nucleus of the anxiety we experience. It is a gift from G-d, meant to be a stepping stone to reach the ultimate achievement and purpose in life—losing oneself in the awesomeness and greatness of Hashem. Like the first draft of an essay, anxieties are created to be destroyed; they are there to help you get something better, not for themselves. Every experience of fear is a personal invitation from Hashem to get in touch with Him. Like a parent who guides their child through a complex game, inconspicuously opening doors to direct them in the right path; G-d opens our fear instinct to guide us into that emotional space.

With this recognition, continues the Besh”t, one should not be afraid of fear, but embrace it. One shouldn’t get worked up or upset over their anxieties but recognize them as opportunities. Instead of complaining to G-d about the scary things we face, we should be thanking Him for them. Fear, seen in this light, is a positive experience instead of a negative emotion. It turns out that “external fear” is not an emotion of distance, but one of closeness. It is an embracing hug from G-d, an expression of His love.


Not a Self-Help Tool

The Besh”t ends this particular teaching with an important caveat.

This teaching bridges the gap between the conceptual world of Chassidus and Kabbalah and the concrete world we live in. It applies the abstract ideas of Achdus Hashem – unity of G-d with all of existence – to real psychological challenges. I think it serves as a paradigm, a fantastic example of how we should be studying Chassidus in general. The goal of Chassidus is not to intellectualize about the mystical G-d-head, but to live a life infused with G-dly awareness and build a relationship with Hashem.

But this notion can sometimes be misinterpreted and even molested. People take it too far and see Chassidus as a self-help book. Nothing can be further from the truth. While self-help is a way of nurturing the Nefesh Habehamis – the ‘self’ – Chassidus aims to free a person from it. Chassidus endeavors to connect one with Hashem; to transcend the natural self. Bittul – self-nullification – is the ultimate goal.

A result of the Chassidic enterprise is a wholesome living. A life at peace with oneself and the world. Because the realization of the ultimate truth of existence harmonizes reality and provides the perspective to see beyond the things that harm us. But it is a convenient byproduct – not the actual product.

In fact, the Besh”t says here, if you attempt to adapt these ideas just to help yourself – in this case to overcome fear – they won’t work. If you don’t actually subscribe to the Achdus Hashem narrative, or haven’t completely integrated it into your thinking, but try to convince yourself of it, to use it as a way to overcome your fears, you will have no luck. It is not a trick or a tool, but a shift in mindset.  In the words of the Besh”t: אך אם כוונתו בזה כדי לפטור מיראה חצוניח לא מהני כלום – However, if his purpose is to do away with external fears, it won’t help at all.