There is Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself

Rabbi Wagensberg
Parshas Netzavim - Rosh Hashanah
There is Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself

Since Parshas Netzavim falls out on the last Shabbos of the year and since it is read right before Rosh Hashanah, we will share a teaching which includes material on both the parsha and the holiday at hand.

Rashi (Dt. 29:12) cites a Midrash (Tanchumah, 1) that talks about the juxtaposition between last week's parsha, Ki Savo, and this week's parsha, Netzavim. Last week's parsha concluded with the 100 curses that will befall the Jewish people if they do not carry out God's will. When the Jews heard all of those horrific curses, they turned green with fright wondering how they would ever withstand such an onslaught.

This week's parsha picks up from where we left off in last week's parsha. Moshe tells the Jewish people, "Atem Nitzavim Hayome Kulchem Lifnei Hashem Elokeichem" (You are all standing today before Hashem your God). With those words, Moshe meant to convey to the people that although they "angered God" many times with their sins, Hashem did not destroy them. Moshe intended to comfort the people by saying, "Don't worry, everything is going to be alright."

Apparently, this was a comfort offered in vain. Maybe the curses had not yet come because the Jewish people's sins had not yet reached the breaking point. If, however, you want to argue that the Jewish people did sin sufficiently in order to deserve the curses, and in spite of that, Moshe told them that the curses would still not take effect, then the Jews would never come to fear God because they would see that all of the curses were just a bunch of empty threats.

The curses and Moshe's comfort seem to be self-contradictory. If they sinned enough, why haven't the curses come? If they have not sinned enough, why was it necessary for Moshe to comfort them? There was no need for comfort because they did not deserve to be cursed yet (Kli Yakar).

Before addressing an answer to this question, let us explore the positioning of Parshas Netzavim falling out right before Rosh Hashanah.

The Talmud (Megillah, chap.4, "Bnei Ha-ir", pg. 31b, Rebbi shimon ben Elazar) says that Ezra the Scribe arranged that the curses of parshas Ki Savo should be read prior to Rosh Hashanah so that we can conclude the year with its curses. In other words, let all the curses be dumped on the previous year, which is behind us anyway, so that we can begin a fresh new year that will be curse free.

The Tosafists (ibid, divrei hamaschil "Kelalos") add that Ezra wanted there to be a parsha read before Rosh Hashanah which would separate the curses from the New Year. That parsha is Nitzavim. Parshas Nitzavim serves as a barrier between the curses that come before it and the New Year which comes after it.

Since Parshas Nitzavim comes right before Rosh Hashanah, we find hints in Nitzavim which allude to Rosh Hashanah.

The Book of Job opens with a discussion between God, the angels, and Satan. Hashem brags about how righteous Job is. The Satan said that Job is only righteous because he has it good. However, if he would suffer, he would not be so loyal to God. Convinced that Job would still pledge allegiance to God, Hashem allowed Satan to make Job's life miserable.

The verse which kicks off this episode says, "Vayehi HAYOME" (and it happened one day) that the angels came to stand before Hashem, and the Satan too came among them" (Job 1:6). The Zohar (Bo, pg. 32b) comments that the word "HAYOME" (day) in the verse by Job refers to the great day of judgement, Rosh Hashanah. On Rosh Hashanah, Hashem judges everybody (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah, chap. 1, "Arba'a Roshei Shanim", Mishnah 2, pg. 16a). The Book of Job opens with Job's turn to be judged.

If the word "HAYOME" in that verse refers to Rosh Hashanah, then the word "HAYOME" in our parsha can also refer to Rosh Hashanah. Our opening verse says, "Atem Nitzavim HAYOME" (You are standing today). This week's parsha is reminding us that we are standing right before the great day of judgement (Zera Kodesh, Arvei Nachal, Meor Vashamesh).

This reminder about standing before God in judgement can lead us to experience a bit of fear. This idea leads us right into the next fundamental teaching.

The verse states, "Elokim (God) did so that man should fear before God" (Ecc. 3:14). What did God do? The Ba'al Shem Tov (cited in Meor Einayim, Parshios Noach and Yisro) says that this verse comes to teach us that God made strict justice. We can see this from the Name of God chosen in this verse, Elokim. Elokim is the Name which is always connected to the side of strict justice. Why did God invent strict justice? It was not so that He could punish sinners. Rather, it was "So that man should fear before God." Strict justice was created in order to instill something called "Yiras Hashem" (fear, awe, reverence, or respect of God) into the person.

There are benefits to the fear of God, even in its lowest form, fear of punishment. Fear can generate healthy choices for the future. Because of fear, a person might say, "You know what; I think I'm going to stop doing that." What about sins that have already been committed? Fear is beneficial there as well because fear itself cleanses the person from the stain of his past sins.

If a person possesses fear of God, there is no need for the actual punishment. The fear itself is a substitute for the punishment.

When I saw this piece, it triggered in my mind those famous words uttered by the 32nd President of the United States of America, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) who said in his inaugural address, "There is nothing to fear but fear itself." One can analyze what he meant by that, but I think there is a Jewish interpretation of that quote. "There is nothing to fear" means that there is no need to fear punishment because all Hashem wants is the "fear itself."

Parshas Netzavim is a testimonial that God is not looking to punish us because we mentioned above that Parshas Netzavim serves as a partition between the curses that precedes it and the New Year which follows it. By God placing distance between the curses and the New Year, we learn that God is not interested in punishing us. The curses are there just in order to generate fear.

This explains how there is no contradiction between the curses and Moshe's pacifying the people. Moshe meant to say that even if you did sin a lot, the curses will not come if you are filled with Yiras Hashem. When Moshe saw that the Jews had "turned green with fright", he said that that is all God ever wanted. Now there will be no need for the actual curses because the fear substitutes the curses, generates healthy choices for the future, and cleanses the filth of past sins (Shvilei Pinchas).

Not only does Yiras Hashem possess the ability to nullify the curses, but so do the blasts of the Shofar. This is because one of the primary functions of the Shofar is to generate the fear of God (Amos 3:6). This is why the Shofar blasts have the power to move God from "sitting" on the Throne of Judgement to "sitting" on the Throne of Compassion" (Vayikra Rabba 29:3-4, Yehudah ben Rebbi Nachmon). Once the Shofar blasts instill the fear of God, there is no longer any need for actual judgement. The fear of God was the goal (Sefas Emes).

There is another layer to uncover with respect to the Shofar blasts. The custom is to blow 100 blasts all together. The 100 blasts of the Shofar are meant to counteract the 100 sobs that Sisra's mother cried when she realized that Sisra was not going to be coming back home (Tosafos, Rosh Hashanah, chap. 4, "Yom Tov", pg. 33b, "Shiur").

Sisra was a Canaanite general (Jud. 4:2) who fought a battle with the Jewish people. Devorah and Barak led the Jewish army into battle. The Jews won the battle and Sisra fled to the tent of Yael. Yael got Sisra drunk. While Sisra was sleeping, Yael took the peg of her tent and hammered it through Sisra's temple, killing him instantly. Devorah sang a famous song thanking Hashem for the victory. When Sisra's mother realized that Sisra was dead, she cried 100 sobs (Jud. 5:25). The 100 Shofar blasts are meant to offset those sobs.

This is puzzling to say the least. What was the significance of Sisra's mother's sobs? Why do we need Shofar blasts to counteract them? How do the blasts neutralize the sobs?

Before addressing this, let us mention another set of 100. Rebbi Meyer says that one must recite 100 blessings a day (Menachos, chap. 4, "Hatecheiles", pg. 43b; Dt. 10:12). The one hundred blessings a day can bring a person to Yiras Hashem (See Berachos, chap. 5, "Ein Omdin", pg. 33b). How the 100 blessing bring a person to Yiras Hashem, will be explained below.

The Shelah (Chayei Sarah, Torah Ohr) says that the most powerful bad angel who exists is the Samech Mem angel. "Samech Mem" is the way we refer to this angel even though he has two more letters after the letters samech and mem, which are aleph and lamed. The reason why we do not mention his full name is due to a concern that he might hear us mention his name and think that we are summoning him. As a result, he will fly towards us, which creates a spiritual danger because he is very strong and cunning and he might cause us to sin.

The first two letters of his name (samech mem) come from the dark side of impurity, whereas the last two letters of his name (aleph lamed) come from the side of light and holiness. The impure side of his name nurses off of the holy side of his name, using that energy to create 100 forces of evil, which he uses to create distance between the Jewish people and God. These 100 forces of evil are hinted to in the "dark" letters of his name, "Samech Mem," because these two letters are numerically 100.

These 100 forces of evil are 100 layers of darkness and doubt. The 100 forces of evil are likened to 100 iron curtains, barriers, and partitions intended on separating the Jewish people from Hashem. When these 100 walls of separation are erected, it makes it increasingly difficult for Jews to feel God's Presence in the world and in their personal lives.

Perhaps we could add the words of the Kli Yakar at this juncture, because they complement this teaching of the Shelah.

The Kli Yakar (Vayishlach 32:25) says that the primary power of the Samech Mem is that he causes spiritual blindness in people, making it hard for them to see God in the world and in their lives. We can see this from his name. With a slight change in punctuation, the letters samech mem can be pronounced as "sumah" (blind). What this angel blinds us from is hinted to in the last two letters of his name, aleph lamed, which spells "Kel" (Almighty God). This shows us that the function of this angel is to "sumah" (blind us) from "Kel" (God).

If we find it difficult at times to feel God's Presence in our lives, it is because there is a Samech Mem out there creating 100 barriers between us and Hashem. As such, we find it difficult to fear Hashem.

May I add that there is another translation of the word "yira" besides fear, awe, reverence, and respect. With a slight change in vowels, the word "yira" can be pronounced "yireh" (to see). These two words are connected to each other. To the extent that we "yireh" God, we will be able to "yira" God. But the samech Mem does not let us see God clearly. Therefore, we find it hard to fear Him. Then, we cannot take advantage of the benefits that yira offers, such as making healthy choices for the future and cleansing us from the stain of previous sins.

This is why our Sages instituted 100 blessings a day. The 100 blessings a day can remove the 100 layers of darkness, if we recite those blessings correctly. A "berachah" does not mean that we are going to bless God. He does not need our blessings. Rather, the word "berachah" can be pronounced as "bereichah" (a pool or spring of water). A "bereichah" is a source of life because when there is water there is a chance of life.

When we say "Baruch Ata Hashem" (blessed are you God), we really mean to say, "Ata Hashem" (You God) are a "beracha", or shall I say, a "Bereichah", a Source of everything.

By reciting 100 berachos a day, we crystalize in our minds eye that God is present in the world and our lives. This clarity of vision removes the layers of darkness. Every beracha peels away one layer of darkness, until, after 100 blessings, there is no darkness left. By allowing us to "see" clearly, the berachos bring us to the "fear" of God.

The blasts of the Shofar are also meant to bring us to the level of yira. But, how does this work? Besides, how do the Shofar sounds counteract the 100 sobs of Sisra's mother?

Perhaps we could suggest the following. Sisra was the most powerful warrior in the world, because by the age of thirty, he had conquered the entire world (Midrash Aba Giryon, 3). As such, he deserved the most powerful archangel to be his guardian. Therefore, the Samech Mem was his guardian angel. However, when Sisra did not return from war, his mother wept for him. This weeping caused confusion. People witnessing the intense mourning over Sisra might come to the conclusion that Sisra must have been a great man. People might start to think that the world lost one of its mightiest warriors. This paints Sisra in a positive light. Sisra might go down in the annals of history as a great person. This image can cause people to try and emulate his lifestyle.

However, upon further examination of this man's life we begin to learn about what he was really like. We find that his behavior was antithetical to everything that the Torah stands for. He was a murderer, rapist, plunderer, and pillager. But his mother's tears confuse people, messing with their minds, convincing them that he was a great man.

Sisra's mother's tears assisted the Samech Mem in creating 100 layers of darkness and confusion. This is where the Shofar comes in. The blasts of the Shofar are meant to bring us back to reality. They remind us that God is King and that He is present and involved in our lives. The 100 blasts remind us that God gave us a Torah guiding us to live life in a holy and righteous way. The 100 blasts help us clarify the difference between right and wrong. The 100 blasts reveal Sisra's true colors. He was not a great man but rather a wicked person. The blasts help us call a spade a spade. The 100 blasts of the Shofar peel away the 100 layers of blurriness, helping us to achieve "yireh" Hashem. Once we "see" Him, we can come to fear Him.

The 100 Shofar blasts do not only peel away the 100 forces of evil, but they also have the power to remove the 100 curses from falling upon us. This is based on what we mentioned above. The curses were written only in order to generate "Yiras Hashem." Since the Shofar blasts inject Yiras Hashem into us, there is no longer any need for the curses (Shvilei Pinchas).

Moreover, not only do the 100 blasts of the Shofar have the ability to remove the 100 curses from us, but so do the 100 blessings each day. This is because the 100 blessings also bring us to yireh (see) God, which leads to Yiras Hashem. Once we have the Yiras Hashem, there is no longer any need for the actual curses.

Let's sum it up like this. On the one hand we had 100 sobs from Sisra's mother which assisted the 100 layers of the Samech Mem's darkness. We also had the 100 curses.

On the other hand, we have 100 Shofar blasts and 100 blessings which can remove the 100 layers of darkness and which can remove the 100 curses from us.

We could apply this teaching to ourselves in two ways. First of all, prior to the blowing of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah, let us say, "Please Hashem, allow these 100 blasts to destroy the 100 forces of evil of the Samech Mem which causes spiritual blindness, and help me be filled with reverence for You, thereby removing all 100 curses from myself, my family, and from all of Klal Yisrael." We can think of this during the blasts also.

The second application is a way of taking Rosh Hashanah with us into the New Year. Many of us are scrambling to find a new year's resolution that we can accept upon ourselves, showing Hashem that we intend on being even better this year. We could suggest the following practice.

On Rosh Hashanah say to Hashem that this coming year we are going to improve on the 100 blessings. But, we will improve on them in the following way. Let us decide that every single day of the upcoming year, we are going to choose at least one blessing that we are going to concentrate on no matter what. Whatever it takes, we will recite at least one berachah a day with as much concentration as we can muster. This might mean reciting the "Asher Yatzar" blessing (after using the bathroom) while standing in a corner, as opposed to engaging in whatever activities that we are tempted to do during its recitation. It might also mean to open up a Siddur (Prayer Book) and read the blessing from it. Each day we could choose a different blessing to concentrate on.

This way, in our first 100 days in office, we will already have 100 blessings under our belts. This will help to remove the 100 layers of darkness, and also help remove the 100 curses from upon us.

So, may we all BLESS 100 times over, with 100% concentration and destroy the 100 forces of the Samech Mem, bringing us to true "Yiras Hashem" which will cleanse us from the filth of sin, and thus merit to witness the time when Hashem's sovereignty will be revealed throughout the world, when we will truly be comforted from all 100 curses of the past, V'nizkeh, L'kesiva V'chasima Tova, Shenas Geulah V'yeshuah, Bimheira Biyameinu, Amen!