Friday, August 10, 2012


used under creative commons license
Fear Fuelled Flight
Fear is both a valuable tool in the quest for virtue as well a destructive force. Yesterday I needed to make an argument about diversity education policy in front of the Tasmanian Minister for Education and my fear of getting it wrong made it hard for me to prepare my speech.  Yet earlier this week I heard Australian Olympic Gold medallist Sally Pearson talk about being afraid while she competed. The mystics taught that love and fear are the two wings that make good deed soar to the heavens[i].

Motivated by Fear?
Two heroic women in the Torah displayed a combination of fearlessness and fear. When the Pharaoh demands that the Jewish midwives Shifra and Puah kill Jewish baby boys they defy him. The Torah explains their motivation. “The midwives, however, feared God; so they did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them, but they enabled the boys to live[ii]”. In a study of business success and failure, one characteristic of great business leaders was their fear that something could go wrong[iii].

I have often been cautious in my bridge building work, afraid of alienating people I was trying to engage. I have a sense that being bolder at times is needed, yet I think the fearful instinct (If I can call it that) is also a valuable tool and the challenge is to know which to use when. My Liberian Muslim friend, Mohamed Dukuly told me a saying once from his people about keeping quiet 9 times so that one can have the opportunity to speak the tenth time. I think there is wisdom in that.   

Fear as a core of worship
The nature of fear advocated by the Torah is contested[iv], but its importance is not. After Moses reminds the Israelites about their past great failure when they worshipped a golden calf he rhetorically asks them “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord, your God, demand of you?” His answer is “Only to fear the Lord, your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, and to worship the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul[v]”. 

Messing up the little things
The Midrash has a touching portrayal of King David’s fear. There are some commandments that people are not careful with and “throw them under their heels[vi]” (or trample on them) as these are seen as “light” or low importance. David says “master of the world, I am not afraid (of transgressing) the “heavy” commandments of the Torah, as they are significant. What am I afraid of, the light commandments, perhaps I have transgressed one of them. Perhaps I did or did not do (what I should) as these are light…master of the world because the matters of the Torah as sweeter than honey I might have been dismissive of them…[vii].

We can be motivated by love and inspiration to do important tasks, but it is fear that helps us attend to the boring details that are important in the long run. “One who is afraid will not fail to do even one 1000th of his obligations because of his fear[viii]”.  This is related[ix] to the verse above, “Now”, as a beginner in worship, “what does God ask of you but to fear him” which is a foundational step, that will later lead you to “going in all his ways, to love him and serve him will all your heart and all your soul”.

In the end I think the speech in front of the minister achieved its purpose, he seemed to accept the merits of my argument. My love for the principle of respect for all people combined with my fear of saying the wrong thing, helped me speak from the heart and allowed the message to fly.

[i] Tanya, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi
[ii] Exodus 1:17
[iii] Collins J, (2009), How the Might Fall and Why Some Companies Never Give In, Random House Business Books
[iv] Views range from fear of punishment to awe of the greatness of God
[v] Deuteronomy 10:12
[vi] This is based on a play on words, the Torah (Deuteronomy 7:12) states “And it will be, because you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform, that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers”.  The Hebrew word that is translated as “because” is Ekev עֵקֶב which can also mean a heel and it interpreted as it will be if you obey the commandments that might otherwise end up under your heel, you will be rewarded…
[vii] Midrash Tanchuma, Ekev 1
[viii] Ohr Hachayim on Deuteronomy 10:12
[ix] Ohr Hachayim

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