By Rabbi Josh Weinberg November 6 2020 י”ט במרחשוון תשפ”א
In a classic scene in the 1993 Robert De Niro film “A Bronx Tale,” the young teenager poses a quintessential question to Sonny the mafia boss, asking “Is it better to be feared or loved?” The young admirer of the mob boss was genuinely searching for life lessons and looking for the correct path for his life’s journey. How many of us this week have given deep thought to all that we fear along with all that we love. The fate of an election carries with it the manifestation of legitimate fears. What will it mean for the virus and our nation’s health, the economy, immigration, environment, a woman’s right to choose, gun violence protection, the future of Israel and the Middle East? What will change based on who is elected?
So too, the journey of Avraham in Parashat VaYera offers examples of both fear and love.
Upon hearing the results of the election, some will echo the feeling of Hagar and Ishmael. Despite having been banished from the house of Avraham and Sarah and destined to wander in the wilderness, they eventually settle down and establish a great nation from their line.
וַיִּשְׁמַ֣ע אֱלֹהִים֮ אֶת־ק֣וֹל הַנַּעַר֒ וַיִּקְרָא֩ מַלְאַ֨ךְ אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶל־הָגָר֙ מִן־הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וַיֹּ֥אמֶר לָ֖הּ מַה־לָּ֣ךְ הָגָ֑ר אַל־תִּ֣ירְאִ֔י כִּֽי־שָׁמַ֧ע אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶל־ק֥וֹל הַנַּ֖עַר בַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר הוּא־שָֽׁם׃
“God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.”
While Hagar and Ishmael are comforted from their fears, Isaac and Abraham are not.
We learn of Isaac’s fear when Jacob left his father-in-law Lavan’s house saying: “Had not the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, been with me, you would have sent me away empty-handed. But God took notice of my plight and the toil of my hands, and gave judgment last night.” (Genesis 31:42)
Which fear was that? The fear of a young child about to be sacrificed on the altar by his father? Was it the trauma of narrowly being saved by the voice of an angel? Isaac’s fear was that of those who are small, feeble, vulnerable, and exposed and are afraid of the massive forces of the mighty and powerful.
The take-away question when thinking about Isaac’s fear is whether we ought to act from fear or from love? Should we follow politicians and leaders who instill in our hearts fear and hate in service of their agenda and world view, or those who inspire us to love others and aspire to embody the greater angels of the human spirit?
Often, leaders use fear as a weapon to coerce their followers to do their bidding. However, fear is not an ideal way to motivate us toward constructive action. On the contrary, it nourishes competition, fosters short-term thinking, destroys trust, erodes joy and pride, stifles innovation and distorts communication. Fear consistently undermines peoples’ commitment, motivation, and confidence to engage in constructive actions in order to create a better and more ethically-based world.
Fear often leads to immediate short-term results and can motivate people to act, but only love inspires people to act morally leading to fulfilment and wholeness.
Abraham is credited with acting out of love for God, though the “Binding of Isaac” story in this week’s Torah portion raises serious moral questions as it had to have instilled fear in Yitzhak’s heart. Yet, God blessed Abraham for his so-called “act of faith”:
“I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed My command.” (Genesis 22: 17-18)
So – what ought we to conclude about the way leaders lead? Sonny, the Bronx mafioso, answers the question matter-of-factly, “It’s nice to be both feared and loved, but that’s very difficult. But if I had my choice, I would rather be feared. Fear lasts’ longer than love … It’s fear that keeps them loyal to me.”
For those of us who are not mafioso, the Talmud (Sotah 31a) offers a different response:
“מאי איכא בין עושה מאהבה לעושה מיראה איכא הא דתניא רבי שמעון בן אלעזר אומר גדול העושה מאהבה יותר מן העושה מיראה שזה תלוי לאלף דור וזה תלוי לאלפים דור” (סוטה לא ע”א)
What difference is there between one who performs mitzvot out of love and one who performs mitzvot out of fear? It is taught that Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: Greater is the one who performs mitzvot out of love than the one who performs mitzvot out of fear. The one who acts out of fear is one whose merits endure for one thousand generations, and the one who serves God out of love, is one whose merits endure for two thousand generations.”
When do we feel comforted from our fears like Hagar and Ishmael, and when do we carry our fear with us, even from generation to generation like Isaac? Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar would like us to act out of love as it outlasts fear by one thousand generations. But that doesn’t necessarily make our fears disappear. The challenge that we all have going forward is that our love for our families, communities, people, and country ought to outweigh our fears as we face the many threats foreign, domestic, and microscopic that confront us.
Rabbi Nachman of Braslov said it well in this famous line: “The world is a narrow bridge. The important thing is to not be afraid.”