The Psychology of Fear

TheYeshiva
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by Rabbi Y. Y. Jacobson (See all authors)

Tears on His 50th Wedding Anniversary

A man and woman were recently celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.

While cutting the cake, the wife was moved after seeing her husband’s eyes fill with tears.

The wife took his arm, and looked at him affectionately.

“I never knew you were so sentimental.” she whispered.

“No . . . No . . .” he said, choking back his tears, “That’s not it at all. Remember when your father found us in the barn and told me to either marry you or spend the next 50 years in jail?”

“Yes,” the wife replied. “I remember it like yesterday.”

“Well,” said the husband, “Today I would have been a free man.”

Vain Tears

At the surface, it seems like a very unfair response, recorded in the Talmud.(1)

תענית כט, ב: בתשעה באב נגזר על אבותינו שלא יכנסו לארץ... ותשא כל העדה ויתנו את קולם ויבכו העם בלילה ההוא. אמר רבה אמר ר' יוחנן תשעה באב היה. אמר להם הקב"ה אתם בכיתם בכיה של חנם ואני קובע לכם בכיה לדורות.


The Torah—in Numbers and again in this week’s portion of Devarim—relates how when the twelve spies returned from scouting the Land of Canaan they frightened the Israelites from entering it.

This is what the spies said:

We came to the land that you have sent us, and indeed, it flows with milk and honey; this is its fruit. However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very great; we also saw giants there. The Amalekites dwell in the Negev, the Hittites, the Jebusites and the Emorites in the hills, and the Canaanites at the sea and on the banks of the Jordan… We cannot go up against these people, for they are mightier than we…

They spread an [evil] report about the land which they had scouted, telling the children of Israel, ‘The land we passed through to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of stature. There we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, descended from the giants. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.’

As a result of this the Torah relates:

The entire community raised their voices and shouted, and the people wept on that night. All the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron, and the entire congregation said, "If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this desert. Why does the Lord bring us to this land to fall by the sword; our wives and children will be as spoils. Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?” (2).

Comes the Talmud and teaches us that the spies, who were sent on the 29th day of Sivan, returned after forty days on the 8th of Av. The mass weeping of the entire nation thus occurred on the night of the 9th of Av. G-d declared to them, “You wept in vain, I will establish this day as a time of weeping for all generations.”

Indeed, that day—the 9th of Av—has become a day of tears and grief, for the terrible calamites that occurred on this day throughout our history. Jews have been crying on this day since.

Yet, G-d’s response seems unfair. Just because someone cries in vain, is it a reason to penalize them and make them cry in earnest over real pain for generations to come? The act is incommensurate with the punishment. Just because someone weeps over delusional misery, is it a reason to “take revenge” and make them suffer real misery which would illicit real tears? What is the connection between the two? How could “vain tears” alone warrant such a dramatic punishment—that for all generations this would become a night of tears and grieving?

The answer of course is that this was not a punishment. G-d was stating a prediction, and a natural one. He was attempting to explain to the people the tragic ramifications of their behavior. Your crying tonight in vain is what will cause you to cry for generations. Why?

Helplessness

Why were the Jews weeping that night? Because they saw a hopeless and doomed future for themselves and their children. They have been through so much; they have finally made it out of Egypt, only to meet their cruel deaths upon entering Canaan.

Yet there is something strange here. In all of history, it would be difficult to find a generation whose lives were more saturated with miracles than the generation which left Egypt. Egypt, the most powerful nation on earth at the time, was forced to free them from slavery when "the mighty hand" of G-d inflicted ten supernatural plagues. When Pharaoh's armies pursued them, the sea split to let them pass and then drowned their pursuers. In the desert, miracles were the stuff of their daily lives: manna from heaven was their daily bread, "Miriam's well" (a miraculous stone which traveled along with the Israelite camp) provided them with water, and "clouds of glory" sheltered them from the desert heat and cold, kept them clothed and shod, destroyed the snakes and scorpions in their path, and flattened the terrain before them to ease their way. Above all of this, this nation witnessed—the only time in history—the revelation of G-d Himself at Mt. Sinai sharing with them the ultimate truth of existence.

For these people to doubt G-d's ability to conquer the "mighty inhabitants" of Canaan seems nothing less than ludicrous. Yet this very people embraced the notion, "We cannot go up against these people, for they are mightier than we" and even He!

The Power of Fear

Thus is the disturbing power of fear. It is not always rational. Sometimes, it proves more powerful than all of your previous success stories. The fear may be baseless from a rational and empirical point of view; yet this does not prevent fear from paralyzing you, and freezing you in your tracks. Roosevelt was quite correct in his quip that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

This is what happened to our people on that fateful night of the ninth of Av. Despite all rational and compelling evidence that they can do it; despite the fact that G-d—the singular master of the world—has instructed them to do it, they were overtaken by titanic fear. They concluded that their future was bleak and cruel. They were powerless. They could do nothing but weep.

Their weeping in vain on that night was not the reason for the punishment; it was the factor that revealed what might come in the future. They wept in vain because they did not appreciate that G-d was with them and He has given them the power to confront their challenges and overcome their obstacles. When you lose sight of your inner spiritual power, you indeed become a victim to forces and people beyond your control. And then you cry for real.

The Experiment

Psychology Today published some time ago an experiment conducted by a Harvard psychologist named Dr. Robert Rosenthal on a group of students and teachers living in Jerusalem. The experiment went as follows: a group of physical education teachers and students were randomly chosen and randomly divided into three groups.

In the first group, the teachers were told that previous testing indicated that all the students had an average ability in athletics and an average potential. The teachers were told: “Go and train them!”

The second group of teachers were told that students in their group, based on previous testing, exhibited an unusually high potential for excellence in athletic… “Go and train them!”

And the third group of teachers were told that their group of students had exhibited, based on previous testing, an extremely low potential for athletic training. “Now go and train them!”

The teachers were given several weeks to work with and interact with their student athletes. At the end of the training period the results were the same for male and female students, and for male and female teachers. All of those students who had been randomly identified as being rather average in ability performed about average on the tests. All of those students who were randomly identified as being above average, performed above average. All those students who were randomly identified as below the average, performed below the average by a considerable margin. The results of the test indicated that what the teachers thought their students’ ability was, and what the students themselves thought their ability was, went a long way toward deciding just how well they performed as athletes.

“Psychology Today” took special note of this experiment because it confirmed in the physical arena what psychologists had long claimed to be true in the educational and emotional arena: The concept of the self fulfilling prophecy. Students in classrooms, workers in shops, patients in therapy, all do better when the person in charge expects them to do well, when they themselves expect to do well. One’s own self esteem, one’s own self-image, what someone thinks of themselves and thinks himself capable of, is an extremely crucial factor in deciding what can be, of what one is to make of himself or herself, and the way we see ourselves plays an important role in the way others see us as well.

The Circus

Did you ever go to the circus? Remember those huge elephants that weighed several tons who were held in place by a small chain wrapped around one of their huge legs, and held to the ground by a small wooden stake? If those huge elephants wanted to, they could walk right through those small chains and that small wooden stake like a hot knife going through butter. But they don’t. Why is that?

When they were little baby elephants, they were chained down by those same small chains and the small wooden stakes. But to them, as babies, they couldn’t move. They tried and tried and tried again and could not release themselves from those chains and stakes. And then, an interesting thing happens. They stop trying. They gave up. They developed a belief system.

Now, as adult elephants, they don’t try because they are programmed to believe that there efforts would be useless – in vain. As huge, adult elephants, they don’t even try. They’re held in prison by their beliefs.

The same is true with so many of us. The spies declared: “We were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so were we in their eyes.” As a result, the nation wept in vain. The spies caused the Jews to perceive themselves as hopeless, small and futile “grasshoppers.” Thus they also came to believe that everyone looks at them as mere grasshoppers. When you think you are weak, you indeed become weak, and you believe that everyone considers you the same.

Part of leaving exile and being worthy of redemption is that we must stand firm, united, filled with resolve. We must never capitulate. As individuals and as a community, we must dismiss the sense of powerlessness, which seems to have been at the core of the US capitulation to Iran last week week. We ought to remember that in every situation we are empowered by G-d to create light out of darkness and to continue our march to bring healing and redemption to our world, with the coming of Moshiach, so that this Tisah B’av is transformed into grand festival. Amen.


[1] Taanis 29b

[2] Numbers ch. 13-14


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