Can Man Overcome Fear?

Rabbi Reuven Mann

A major subject of Parshat Shoftim is that of Milchama (war). It is clear that Judaism is not a pacifist religion and while it doesn’t glorify combat it refuses to shy away from it either. Our religion is very much rooted in reality and frowns upon those who seek to evade or escape its responsibilities. 

We are commanded to establish a national entity and to locate it in the land of Israel, which Hashem designated for the Jewish People. We must constantly remind ourselves and teach our children that our absolute right (and obligation) to reside in this land comes from the Creator of the universe, who gifted us with His Torah. This, of course, presupposes that we recognize and acknowledge the divine origin of Torah and commit ourselves to its observance. A Jewish people that rejects Torah cannot long endure.

We are obligated not only to establish a nation in Eretz Yisrael, but to preserve it as well. Fighting for the defense of the land and the people constitutes a great Mitzvah. In my opinion, the Chayalim and Chayalot (soldiers) are great heroes who deserve every Jew’s gratitude, for where would we be without them? Of course, it is true the Hashem is the ultimate protector of the land, but He commands us to do our part which, if we have merit, He promises to support. But if we get lazy or foolish and fail to maintain a state of military readiness, we might be in for very harsh times.

It is because of the great significance of defending Israel that the Torah addresses so much space to laws of warfare. It delineates the categories of people who are excused from fighting an optional war, although they are still required to contribute to the military effort in secondary ways. However, in a war of self-defense there are no exemptions as everyone must go out and fight. [In light of this, it is very difficult for me to understand the hostile attitude assumed by certain “Charedi” groups toward military service. The greatest Torah personalities such as Avraham Avinu, Moshe Rabbenu, Yehoshua and King David, to mention just a few, were great fighters who protected their people and sanctified Hashem’s Name by visiting violence against those who hate Him.]

The primary obstacle that stands in the way of being a warrior is that of fear. Most people have an innate fear of death, which is firmly rooted in the formidable instinct of self-preservation. Yet in order to fight properly, one must put all thoughts of personal well-being aside and put his life on the line.

Indeed, the Torah recognizes that there are some people for whom this will be impossible. Thus, included among those who are released from service is the coward. The officers proclaim; “Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, and let him not melt the heart of his fellows like his heart” (Devarim 20:8). The Torah recognizes the great danger that an outbreak of panic in the ranks can cause, and commands those who are prone to it to stay home.

However, the matter is not that simple, since virtually all the soldiers who don’t take the “coward option” nevertheless partake of the inevitable fear of dying. So how is one supposed to deal with this? What is the Torah’s prescription for the vast majority of soldiers who are not paralyzed by their trepidations but still are affected by them?

Before the army marches out to battle, the specially designated Kohen addresses the formations. “When you go out to the battle against your enemy, and you see horse and chariot—a people more numerous than you—you shall not fear them, for Hashem, your G-d is with you, Who brought you up from the land of Egypt” (Devarim 20:1). He further states, “…let your heart not be faint; do not be afraid and do not panic, and do not be broken before them. For Hashem, your G-d is the One Who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you” (Devarim 20:3-4).

One may ask, why is it necessary for the Kohen to review for the soldiers such seemingly ordinary ideas. Every religious Jew prays three times a day for Hashem’s protection from his enemies. The belief in Divine Providence and protection for His nation is a fundamental aspect of Judaism, which virtually all Jews are familiar with. So why must this doctrine be reiterated at this point?

Perhaps the answer is that it is one thing to assert these ideals from the safety of one’s living room. It is possible for someone to be a firm believer in the doctrines of Judaism in a purely abstract sense. But this does not necessarily mean that he has internalized these principles on the visceral, emotional level.

Do the beliefs that one affirms actually govern his feelings and actions? The soldier encounters a moment of truth when he faces all the lethal weaponry that the enemy will be hurling at him. The advent of war creates a situation in which the soldier will have to transform himself from an abstract believer to a functional one.

The Chayal/Chayelt (soldier) who masters their emotions and fights with great bravery raises himself to the highest level. In the words of the Rambam; 

“Once a soldier enters the throes of battle, he should rely on the 'Hope of Israel and their Savior', in times of need. He should realize that he is fighting for the sake of the Oneness of G-d’s Name. Therefore, he should place his soul in his hand and not show fright or fear” (Hilchot Melachim UMilchamot 7:15).

“Anyone who fights with his entire heart, without fear, with the intention of sanctifying G-d’s Name alone, can be assured that he will find no harm, nor will bad overtake him. He will be granted a proper family in Israel and obtain merit for himself and his children forever. He will also merit eternal life in the World To Come as it says (I Samuel 25:28-29) ‘Hashem will certainly make my lord a faithful house, for my lord fights the wars of G-d and evil will not be found with you….and my lord’s soul will be bound in a bond of life with G-d” (Hilchot Melachim UMilchamot 7:15).

Thus, military service in the Jewish army is not just a civic responsibility but a most significant religious one as well. Not only that, but it provides an opportunity to reach the highest level of spiritual perfection. One’s ability to overcome fear is directly proportional to the quality of his faith in Hashem. Thus, in our history, the people on the highest level of Emunah (faith) were also the bravest warriors. The ultimate cure for fearfulness is one’s ability to place his trust in Hashem and live according to His Will. As the Rabbis say, “Cancel your will before His Will. (Pirkei Avot 2:4)” May we merit to reach this exalted standard.

Shabbat Shalom