Parashat Matot-Masei: Pushing Past Our Fear
When was the last time that fear stopped you from doing something?
Maybe it was when taking on a new project at work, or when challenging yourself to get involved in your community in a new way. It could also be that your fears these days are wrapped up in the all-too-real reality of whether or not the world is a safe place these days. And while these fears are real and legitimate, we also want our lives to continue to progress, to inspire growth. Did you manage to get past the fear of the risk? Or did it ultimately prevent you from moving forward?
This week’s parsha, Matot-Masei, finds the Israelites approaching the border of the Promised Land, and recounts the string of stops the Israelites made in the desert during their 40-year wandering. And in a list of just about 40 places, we might be tempted to assume that this section of the Torah is just that – a dry list of names, with no deeper meaning. There are commentators however that refuse to see it this way, one of whom is Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, also known as the Ishbitzer Rebbe, who finds particular interest in one set of names, describing the Israelites’ journeying from a place called “Charadah” and coming to rest in “Makhelot” (Numbers 33:25).
The word “charadah” means fear and trembling – a word familiar to many of us from the name of the Ultra-Orthodox group “Charedim” – referring to the idea of “trembling before God.” The word “Makhelot” is directly translated as choirs – groups of people that come together to sing in harmony. So the Ishbitzer Rebbe asks us to consider: what does it mean for a nation to move from a place of fear to a place of togetherness and harmony? The verse is an important reminder, says the Rebbe, that fear is not a bad thing – that the presence of fear serves as a warning, and its actually important to stop there for a time, to take stock of what we’re are or are not prepared to do before proceeding. The trick is however, not to get stuck in a place of fear, and that is why the text tells us that the next stop is “Makhelot” – a place of togetherness and harmony.
My teacher, Reb Mimi Fiegelson, once asked her teacher, Reb Shlomo Carlebach, how loudly a person should sing. His answer was that you should sing at a level where you can hear the voices of those next to you, but the trick is not to sing so softly that you can no longer hear the sound of your own voice. There is indeed something magical about singing together with a community of people – whether at a prayer service, a concert, a sporting event or a protest rally. It is in hearing our own voice raised up and supported by those of others that we gain strength in our cause and feel inspired to step beyond what we can accomplish alone. Singing in harmony doesn’t necessitate that others sing the exact same thing as us – it is in fact often a more beautiful sound when we share our voices in different, but complementary ways.
This, says the Ishbitzer Rebbe, is just one of the messages embedded in this list of places through which the Israelites journeyed: that fear is normal and even important, and the way we move beyond fear is by finding a community that will support our voice and our contributions, and also help us recover if and when we fail. And so my blessing for each of us this Shabbat is that when we encounter fear, that we take the time to pause and assess, and ultimately find strength and courage in finding a community that raises up our voices.