Hope is our antidote to fear

Rabbi Dale Schreiber is a chaplain providing Jewish care coordination for Pathways Hospice and Palliative Care and has a private practice, Renewal-in-Action, specializing in resiliency, spiritual development and compassion fatigue recovery.

By Rabbi Dale Schreiber

Deuteronomy, the final book of the Pentateuch, is called Devarim in Hebrew. It opens with Eileh ha’DevarimThese are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan in the 40th year. The book is a review of the incidents and events leading up to the final launching of a young Israel into a new world.

When I think about the portion this year, I am reminded of what I said or refrained from saying when our children each left for college. Now that they are parents themselves, I am often tempted to offer instructions that may not be well received. My intentions are always honorable. I would like share some of the benefits of my wisdom, not because I’m smarter, or older, but because I have weathered a fair share of challenges along the way. This is the intention I hear in the devarim (words) Moses chooses as he takes this new generation down memory lane. 

Deuteronomy opens with what the rabbis refer to as a rebuke. In paraphrasing, Moses says, “This is your legacy from the wilderness.  Between Paran (the spies) and Tophel (the calf) your parents exhibited what can be called a disease of the will.  Their lack of faith, of courage, and their constant complaining cost them the precious opportunity to stand here with you today! I, myself, could not bear the burden of their numbers, of their discontent, and voiced my despair. As a direct result, you now have the benefit of a counseling and governing system that you can turn to for support and justice. There will be no favoritism. You will be heard.”

Judaism celebrates words, and the rabbis are captivated by what is spoken and heard. The very first chapter in Genesis records that the Holy Blessed One spoke and the world appeared. In Exodus, the commandments delivered at Sinai are called Aseret Ha’dibrot, the Ten Words. In response to hearing those words, the whole of Israel said the words na’asei v’nishma, we will do and we will hear; in the doing, we will learn. In the heart of Leviticus, all of us are instructed to speak so others will listen. In Numbers, Moses encourages and admonishes the exodus generation with “do not be fearful or lose your steadfastness, your determination, for you are not alone.”

Here in Deuteronomy, Moses uses similar words both in remembering what he first told the failed generation and speaks again in an effort to inspire their children. He uses, though, an unusual word for fearful. The word, ta’ar’tzu, doesn’t occur in any of the first four books of Torah. In Deuteronomy, it occurs four times. The meanings are contradictory. The root word can mean admire, awe, worship, broken, dread, or tremble in fear or awe. These definitions provide an opportunity to hear what Moses says in a new way. The Deuteronomic message Moses sends has been translated as “do not be broken or fearful of them … dread not, nor be afraid of them.” 

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Them” refers to the variety of challenges they will encounter when moving into a home of their own for the first time.  

The rabbis teach that each person hears with a unique capacity for understanding. I hear Moses telling us not to worship our fear. I hear him sending both a message and highlighting a mission. In the Bible, the antidote to fear is to always know God is present to rescue the Israelites from defeat. For the Israelites listening to Moses, divine protection was dependent upon following a prescription for sacrifice and service. 

We are the treasurable legacy of those who crossed not only the Jordan to found a nation, but many seas to escape narrow and harrowing places. Our family stories celebrate those crossings with gratitude in the midst of their own fears and trepidation.  Many of us are here today because of their courage and capacities to act at critical moments.  One powerful antidotes to fear is hope.

“Hope is not the belief that everything was, is or will be fine,” author Rebecca Solnit writes.  

For her, hope is an embrace of the unknown, a gift you don’t have to surrender, and a power you don’t have to relinquish. We are a hopeful people. We are never broken.

This Shabbat falls just prior to Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av, dedicated to the great tragedies in Jewish history. This Shabbat is Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of Vision.  

May we feel inspired to stand connected to the Sacred Source of All Life, to appreciate the abundance in what we have, to feel confident in the wellsprings that sustain us as we endeavor to manifest the vision of Israel as a precious people, a productive people and a people of peace.