From my bokhruish days until the present I’ve heard a variety of mashpi’im extol the virtues of many middos nekhonos. I was exhorted to be humble, not to lose my temper, to be satisfied with little, to discuss concepts not people, to pursue acts of altruism, not to procrastinate, to rise early and study diligently and never to question Divine Justice. But I can’t recall a single schmuess (selective memory???) that urged me to overcome phobias and /or to be brave.
In terms of “Do as I do…not as I say” I also have scant personal role models for overcoming fears. The episodes of observing others speaking truth to power, confronting bullies directly or exposing themselves to personal risk are, to my admittedly faulty recollection, few and far between. While I’ve been blessed with observing the actualization of many of the beautiful middos described by the Mussar literature by quite a few Khakhomim, Tzadikim and לעבעדיג'ע מוסר ספרים both famous and obscure, this has not been the case with bravery and courage. I’ve read in Seforim HaQedoshim that those possessed of true Yiras Shomayim fear G-d and nothing else and that they are bold, brave and resolute in facing challenges and confronting danger….but I’ve seldom witnessed it with my own eyes.
Why is it that a society that takes its name from “trembling on account of the word of G-d” seems to promote an atmosphere of fear about so many other things? Fear of dogs. Fear of blacks. Fear of Arabs. Fear of nonconformity and its consequences. L-rd knows that we could use more courage as a society and as individuals. How many of us would’ve been equal to the task of pulling the Rosh Kollel of Montréal out of his smoking car that was about to explode, thus saving his life, as an Afghani Muslim recently did? With more courage we might better be able to address a host of personal problems and crisis (plural) plaguing us.
Maybe it’s because after 2000 years of golus we feel abandoned by G-d kholila. Maybe it’s because non-confrontation and maintaining a low profile is just a pragmatic survival technique for a Diaspora people. Maybe it’s because it’s the one midah tova embraced by heretical movements within Judaism that have jettisoned all the other middos tovos and consequently, "we" associate bravery and courage with “them”.
Last Shabbos when we bentched Rosh Khodesh we asked for חיים שיש בהם יראת שמים ויראת חטא. I think that subliminally this is also a request for חיים שאין בהם יראת בשר ודם. We mustn’t forget that
לו וְהַנִּשְׁאָרִים בָּכֶם--וְהֵבֵאתִי מֹרֶךְ בִּלְבָבָם, בְּאַרְצֹת אֹיְבֵיהֶם; וְרָדַף אֹתָם, קוֹל עָלֶה נִדָּף, וְנָסוּ מְנֻסַת-חֶרֶב וְנָפְלוּ, וְאֵין רֹדֵף.
36 And as for them that are left of you, I will send a faintness into their heart in the lands of their enemies; and the sound of a driven leaf shall chase them; and they shall flee, as one fleeth from the sword; and they shall fall when none pursueth.
סו וְהָיוּ חַיֶּיךָ, תְּלֻאִים לְךָ מִנֶּגֶד; וּפָחַדְתָּ לַיְלָה וְיוֹמָם, וְלֹא תַאֲמִין בְּחַיֶּיךָ.
66 And thy life shall hang in doubt before thee; and thou shalt fear night and day, and shalt have no assurance of thy life.
סז בַּבֹּקֶר תֹּאמַר מִי-יִתֵּן עֶרֶב, וּבָעֶרֶב תֹּאמַר מִי-יִתֵּן בֹּקֶר--מִפַּחַד לְבָבְךָ אֲשֶׁר תִּפְחָד, וּמִמַּרְאֵה עֵינֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר תִּרְאֶה.
67 In the morning thou shalt say: 'Would it were even!' and at even thou shalt say: 'Would it were morning!' for the fear of thy heart which thou shalt fear, and for the sight of thine eyes which thou shalt see.
are among the curses of the Tokhakha.
I once heard that when the NKVD interrogator placed a revolver on the table intervening between him and the Frierdiker Rebbe z”l the latter responded; “You can put that toy away. It might frighten those believing in one material world and many gods or no G-d. But it can’t scare those who believe in two worlds and One G-d. ”. Words to live boldly by indeed. It can’t possibly be a Qidush HaShem to pay lip service to G-d’s limitless might while our actions, often distrustful of His ability to protect us from those who might do us harm, seem to belie the very praises we offer up to Him in Shul.
As Peretz's fictional but plausible wood-chopping Rebbe put it to the over-worried invalid widow: “Foolish one. See you are a poor sick Jewess and I am ready to trust you with a little wood. I am SURE you’ll pay. While you, you who have such a great and mighty G-d…and you don’t trust Him for six cents?”
Qedusha Havdala…have you had YOURS today hmmm???