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A Perspective on Fear

Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 )


"When you go out to war against your enemy and you see horses and chariots, an army greater than you, do not fear them, for the Lord your God, Who took you out of Egypt, is with you."(Deut. 20:1)

How can we possibly expect to achieve such a high level that we do not fear when we go into battle? Even Moses fled in terror when his rod was transformed into a snake. Yet if the Torah commands us not to fear the impending battle, it must be something within the capability of every Jew.

The Talmud (Brachot 60a) raises a seeming contradiction between the verse, "Fear in Zion, you sinners" (Isaiah 33:14), which implies that fear is a sin, and the verse, "Fortunate is the one who fears constantly" (Proverbs 28:14). The Talmud resolves the apparent contradiction: fear of losing one's Torah learning or mitzvah observance is positive; all other fear is negative.

A careful consideration of the mitzvot of our parsha provides important clues as to how we can attain the proper fear and avoid all other fear. The unifying thread running throughout is the necessity to pursue perfection. The parsha begins with the command to appoint judges and enforcers of the law to ensure tzedek – complete and perfect righteousness. Our right to occupy Israel, the land of perfection, depends on our pursuing this goal diligently. Life – meaning an attachment to God – is possible only where that quest for righteousness is in progress. For this we require judges to discern what is right. And they must be given the means to enforce that judgment.

The Alter of Kelm explains that judges and enforcers parallel chachma (wisdom) and mussar (ethics) on the individual level. Chachma is the ability to discern what actions and thoughts are an expression of God's will; mussar is the ability to translate that knowledge into action.


The Torah continues with three prohibitions that put our quest for perfection into perspective. First we are told not to plant an asheira (tree) near the altar. The message is that one is not to be misled by that which is attractive or fruitful – such as an asheira, from the path of total subjugation to God.

The cold, unattractive stones of the Temple altar represent total devotion to God. And it is the sacrifices, which appear to involve the destruction of an aspect of the physical world, that in reality preserve and give sustenance. For this reason we are commanded to salt the portions of the sacrifices that are to be burnt on the altar. Salt is a preservative. We salt the portions about to be consumed on the altar to show that they are in fact being preserved eternally by being offered to God.

Next the Torah enjoins us not to set up a matzeivah, a monolith, but rather a mizbe'ach. Sforno explains that a single stone represents a person standing perfect before God. A mizbe'ach altar of many stones, by contrast, represents the quest for perfection of a yet imperfect individual. If a Jew deludes himself into thinking he has reached perfection, disaster is sure to follow.

The next prohibition against offering a blemished animal teaches us, says Sforno, that our goal is perfection and quality, not quantity.

If one deviates even slightly from following God's will, the quest for perfection cannot succeed. "Justice, justice pursue" – righteousness is a result of righteousness; it can never result from unrighteousness.


Rabbi Yisrael Salanter relates the following parable:

King A bet King B a million rubles that he could convince King B's prime minister to disrobe publicly. King B could give his prime minister any instruction he wanted as long as he did not reveal the wager. King B called in his prime minister and informed him that he was being sent to King A's country, where he could do whatever he pleased with one exception – under no circumstances was he to disrobe publicly.

After a few days, King A called in the prime minister and asked him how he had become a hunchback. The prime minister responded that he was not a hunchback. King A countered that he most certainly was a hunchback, and he was willing to wager a half of million rubles to that fact. To establish who was right, the prime minister was to disrobe in front of the royal court.

The prime minister eagerly accepted the wager, despite the king's orders. He reasoned that the bet was a sure thing, and he would split the profits with King B. The prime minister disrobed. The royal court unanimously concurred that he was not a hunchback, and the king gleefully gave him his half of million rubles.

Upon returning home, the prime minister told King B his windfall and offered to split it with the king. But instead of being delighted, the king was enraged. "You think you won me 250,000 rubles, you fool. You cost me a million rubles because you failed to heed my command," King B shouted.

So, too, says Rabbi Yisrael, do all those who attempt to reach God in non-prescribed ways deceive themselves. Theirs is the path of idolatry, the next subject in the parsha.


Only by obeying the Torah leaders of the generation can one be assured that his path leads to perfection, and not its opposite. Thus the need for such obedience is the next topic in the parsha.

When the quest for perfection is the driving force in a person's life, the fear that he is deluding himself or is failing to achieve this perfection is always with him. He can be compared to someone who is afraid of mice and finds himself in a burning building with a mouse standing at the only exit. That person will quickly forget his fear of mice.

So, too, will every other fear pale for the one who seeks above all to draw close to God – besides the fear of losing his closeness to God:

"God is my light and salvation, from whom should I fear; God is my life's strength, from whom should I dread?... If an army encamps against me,... in this do I trust... that I will dwell in God's home all the days of my life, that I will see the pleasantness of God and visit in His inner sanctum." (Psalms 27:1-4)

When such a person goes into battle to fight the enemies of Israel and God, the only thing that concerns him is the strengthening of God's rule that will result from victory.

In this vein, Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 525) explains the foundation of the mitzvah not to fear the enemy in battle:

Every individual Jew should put his trust in God and not fear for his own personal life in a situation where he can give honor to God and his people. He should not think about his wife or children or property, but rather divert his mind from everything and concentrate only on the battle. And further he should ponder that the lives of the entire nation depend upon him...

One who fights with all his heart, with the intention of sanctifying God's Name, is assured not to be harmed and will merit for himself and his children a faithful home in Israel and eternal life in the World to Come.

Because his only fear in battle lies in not achieving the kiddush Hashem of victory, he does not fear the enemy because he is thinking only of his own awesome responsibilities.

It is not fear which is prohibited but fearing "them." The fear of the enemy pales into nothingness next to the fear of the chillul Hashem of being vanquished in battle.

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