The power of fear

Friday, 30 June, 2023 - 8:11 am

Fear is one of the most powerful forces in the world.

Fear can make a person behave in a totally opposite way from the way he would expect of himself.

If the fear is strong enough, it can paralyze reason and logic, making one take leave of one’s sanity and rational thinking.

Expert politicians know how to use fear in order to be elected repeatedly – they bring fear to the forefront, and from that moment on, a person who has allowed himself to be exposed to the fear will not make an informed, logical choice, but rather a choice fueled by fear.

In the writings of the Rietz – the sixth Rebbe of the Lubavitch dynasty – the Rebbe describes his imprisonment in the hands of the GPU, the secret police, early on in the Soviet era. He describes fear as their foremost goal. The Rebbe writes as if he was merely an onlooker, describing what he went through. And when he describes the dark corridors they led him through, the threatening stairwells and passageways, one gets the impression that he examined their purpose and determined rather quickly that “now I understood that this taking from place to place is for the purpose of scaring me and frightening me, because the darkness and the ladders and the metal steps, the blackness of the walls and the dank air awaken in one a strong feeling and suspicion that one is being led to a truly terrible, fearsome place.”

At a certain stage, when once again he is being taken from place to place, each time by a different official, the Rebbe writes: “I have already tired of this whole game, because I see that causing fear and terror is the be all and end all, and it is a foundation or means for carrying out [their] conspiracies.”

Throughout his account of the imprisonment, one gets the impression that the Rebbe was very particular to maintain his pride and dignity and not allow the fear to influence him, because, as mentioned, he understood that the fear was not an incidental issue here, rather it was intentional, used to achieve a goal. There is a moment there when Petya, the vulgar guard, tells him how lightly they kill people here. “You can die, it’s quiet here, no one will disturb you, and back home no one will know anything. The doctor will write a certificate, the official will sign, they will erase the file and the dead body will be thrown into one of the pits.” The Rebbe, in startling honesty, writes: “I can’t say that his words didn’t make any impression on me,” but he adds immediately, “but I was thinking what mussar (moral lesson) I can learn from his words.”


Sometimes it seems to me that it is easier to cope with an external imprisonment than with an internal one. Somehow, when there is a clear external enemy, the way to battle it and win is clear as well, while an internal, personal enemy is a completely different story.

I don’t know any innocent people sitting in jail, certainly not due to their way of life and beliefs, Torah study or mitzvah observance. I don’t know any ordinary people who are sitting in jail and trying to cope with a paralyzing, deathly fear. 

I do know people who are sitting in an emotional, mental, personal jail. People who don’t always know why, but they feel there is something that is hard for them to cope with, and it pains them and exhausts them every time anew. And always, always, there is a powerful, paralyzing fear there, the kind that can silence, empty, sadden or blunt any feeling of joy and love, as well as hatred and sadness. Sometimes it seems to me that fear is the most powerful force that interferes with a person’s ability to cope with the internal and personal issues that imprison him, tie him down, sentence him. 

Tomorrow, the 12th of Tammuz, is the Chag Hage’ulah (the festival of salvation) of the Rietz from that terrible imprisonment in 5687 (1927), but when one reads his account of it, it is clear that he didn’t spend even one moment in jail. They arrested his holy body, and tormented it, but his heart and soul remained free. They didn’t succeed in scaring him or influencing his essence, and therefore couldn’t arrest or imprison him.

So how will we celebrate this Chag Hage’ulah?

Okay, not all of us; only those of us who have a few challenges, those who feel imprisoned by some emotional issue or others, which prevent them from living their lives the way they really want to, those of us who know they can do much more, but something big and strong is stopping them, jailing them, preventing them from acting, and mainly scaring them. How will we celebrate this festival of salvation?

Perhaps, if we realize that what is paralyzing us is the fear, perhaps if we try to tell ourselves what the Rebbe wrote back then, “I have already tired of this whole game, because I see that causing fear and terror is the be all and end all, and it is a foundation or means for carrying out [their] conspiracies.”

I don’t know – what do you think?

Shabbat Shalom, 

And a Happy Chag Ge’ulah!

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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