“In the world of the spirit, the opposite of love is not hate but rather it is fear” (“Omer: A Counting” Rabbi Karyn Kedar).
SEEING RECENT HEADLINES of people being shot, and even killed, by knocking on the wrong door, turning into the wrong driveway or accidentally getting into the wrong car, we see what happens when people allow fear to overtake them.
These responses can be attributed to exaggerated reports and rumors that crime is everywhere, spread by certain segments of our society and fueled by the media. Statistics show otherwise, but facts seem to be irrelevant when rampant fear is widespread.
Fear is also driving the myriad laws being passed restricting the actions or speech of those in the LBGTQ or other minority communities. Unfounded fear is the justification for laws which ban the teaching of uncomfortable topics, forbid accurate racial history or remove books from libraries and schools. These laws are based on the perceived danger posed by the “other.”
Fear of the unknown has always been a powerful motivation for violence throughout history.
Proving that nothing is new under the sun, we can find the same human responses in the Torah — crime, irrationality, jealousy, hatred, murder — all based on fear.
On Shabbat in a few weeks, Jews will be reading the portion Sh’lach (Numbers 13.1-15:4), which means “send.”
In this portion, we hear the story of the Israelites at the border of Canaan, where God tells Moses to send spies into the land before they enter to assess the strength of the inhabitants.
Twelve men were sent out to scout and, after 40 days, they returned to report. Ten of them brought back tales of the land being occupied by powerful giants with large, fierce armies and fortified cities. The people became terrified about what would become of them if they entered the land.
The other two scouts, Caleb and Joshua, came back with an entirely different report even though they saw the same land. Though all the emissaries reported the land was flowing with milk and honey, the 10 who expressed trepidation focused only on fear.
God was angry that the people had so little faith. So, except for Joshua and Caleb, it was decreed that none of that generation would be allowed to enter the Promised Land, and the 10 spies who spread such fear all died in a plague.
The story of Sh’lach highlights similarities in our world today. It not only illustrates the damage fear can do, but also shows that people often see what they expect to see and act on that perception, even if it is untrue.
If people have been repeatedly told that the “other” is the enemy, they begin to act in fear, and feel justified in insisting these people’s views, or even the people themselves, must be silenced.
Rabbi Asher Lopatin teaches that Sh’lach also offers a lesson about the importance of diversity and inclusion in a society. Several times the Torah makes a point of equating the status of a stranger or convert with the natural born Israelite. “There shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger; it shall be a law for all time throughout the ages. You and the stranger shall be alike before the Lord,” (Numbers 15: 15-16).
Rabbi Lopatkin says with this emphasis on the stranger, Israelites learn that when they get to the land they must make sure there are foreigners and converts in their midst, all abiding by the same law, a full part of society. “With a diverse group residing together, the people will then be better insulated from the groupthink that gripped them in the sin of the spie,” (Lopatkin, “The Danger of Groupthink”).
Out of fear and a desire for uniformity, people justify laws reflecting one view, one perception, and often from the perspective of one religion. “Diversity and difference is the key to the survival of our people; homogeneity is a recipe for its downfall … The story in Sh’lach is a warning about the dangers of too much unity of thought. Let us work on bringing the stranger not only into the community, but into our thinking,” (Lopatkin).
The story of the spies illustrates the destructiveness of the fear of others, causing us to tear ourselves apart. “Of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst are our own fears,” (Rudyard Kipling).
It’s time to let go of our fears, embrace diversity, equity and inclusion, and show love and compassion to all who are created b’tzelem elohim, in God’s image.
Kein yehi ratzon … may it be God’s will. Shalom.
Issues of Faith is a rotating column by religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. Suzanne DeBey is a lay leader of the Port Angeles Jewish community. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.