Spiritual Peripheral Vision


Spiritual Peripheral Vision

Earlier this year, I had my fight-or-flight response triggered. Of course, this happens to all of us every now and then, from so much as stepping into the road at the wrong moment. Any time our brains process that there is a direct danger, it can trigger an acute stress response. It’s a well-engineered piece of human psychology… usually. 

In my experience, I froze. I became entirely still as my consciousness zeroed in on the point of danger in front of me. 

Just in case I haven’t made this sound dramatic enough, what my brain was responding to was a shark swimming directly at me. 

I was, to be fair, deliberately in the water with the sharks. I’d gone for a swim with them on the other side of the Atlantic. I was originally told there would be a cage, but hey, it’s Florida; we turned up and were told there wouldn’t be a cage today, here, take a snorkel, try not to splash around or you might look like a fish. Nobody is going to enjoy the situation if the shark thinks you are a fish, and that includes the shark. Humans, I understand, are not tasty. 

And so in I got, and I had what was almost entirely a wonderful experience. There were half a dozen bull sharks and one sandbar shark. Not to press the issue too much, but bull sharks are the sharks your mother warned you about. They’re the ones with the bad reputation. But for the most part, they ignored my existence as I appreciated their incredible beauty. 

        And then, the incident. Later, one of the guides would say to me: “Yeah, she got a little curious about you.” That was a very nice way to put it because, let’s remember, sharks are like toddlers; they figure out what things are by putting them in their mouths. 

        The moment she got close was probably very fast, but it is the thing I remember most about that day. My brain located the threat, focused in on it, but could not decide how I was supposed to respond, and so instead, I got very, very still. 

But as you can see, I have retained all four limbs, so - spoiler alert - I was fine. One of the guides rescued me in a manner that seemed, honestly, unfairly undramatic.

        My experience with the overly-friendly bull shark is on one end of a spectrum when it comes to fear. The other side is ongoing fear. Underlying fear. The kind of thing that creeps up and stays with us.

        I had no actual conscious input in my response to the shark. But we do have some ability to consider our responses when it comes to that latter type of fear. And it is, unfortunately, particularly relevant to us right now. There is a growing and empowered antisemitism for us to contend with. There is anxiety for loved ones in Israel, their safety, and their health. There is ongoing dread about the fates of our neighbours, the civilians of Gaza. And that is only to mention the issues that are direct; atop all of that, we are contending with unanswerable questions about the future. 

        In Sefer HaMitzvot, where Maimonides lists the 613 commandments of the Torah, he labels the phrase “do not fear” as a negative commandment. Al tirah, do not fear, is a common phrase in Torah and the rest of the Tanakh. God is constantly telling us not to be afraid. And we have great models for characters who rise above fear in situations of threat: Deborah the Judge who leads us in battle, David the shepherd boy who defeats the giant Goliath, Judith the widow who takes the fate of Jerusalem, and the head of Holofernes, into her hands. 

        But it just isn’t so easy to switch off fear, or indeed to rise above it. “Do not fear”, on the surface, strikes me as a near-impossible suggestion. If it were that easy, I could have thought of not being afraid for myself.

        Al tirah. Do not be afraid. It’s also a strange saying because in certain ways, we are told to fear. Vayareita meilokekha - you shall fear your God - we’re told in Sefer Vayikra. So now, according to Maimonides, we have a negative Torah commandment about fear and a positive Torah commandment about fear. Do not fear. But also, fear God. 

        To demonstrate the differentiation between those types of yirah, fear, we often use the English word "awe". We’re not afraid of God the way we might have been afraid of Holofernes. We do not respond to fear of God by trying to flee God; when Jonah tries that, it’s considered absurd. If anything, we model our response to God on Jacob, whose response to fight-or-flight with the Divine is… not quite the same as Jonah’s. Jacob, in the midst of his fear, wrestles with the Divine, and it is from there that we get our name, the People of Israel - the people who struggle with God. 

        In some ways, it is bizarre that this moment is considered positive enough to be the name passed on; I would wager a guess that most non-Jews would find the idea of centering our identity around struggling with God to be unexpected. But struggle is engagement. Struggle is not running away, nor submitting unthinkingly. We frame our understanding of the divine around this concept; we are not to be indifferent, nor to be submissive, but rather, to be actively engaged. 

        Rabbi Shai held quotes his teacher Bernard Steinberg in trying to differentiate between these types of yirah, fear. He says: “Awe is what happens to fear when it stops being about me.” 

        Fear of threat is a clouding emotion. It is that way through evolutionary design. I need to narrow my focus when the thing in front of me is a bull shark. But applying that type of fear to the world means we have no ethical or spiritual peripheral vision.

        So perhaps we can have both commandments. Perhaps do not fear and be in fear of God are intrinsically linked because they are about the need to widen our spiritual scope. 

        And for that concept, I think we have a very important model. One that we will reach next week, as we start the Book of Exodus. Heroism, actions against the tyrannical rule of Pharaoh that will save the entirety of the People of Israel. The reason we are still here today. 

        I’m speaking, of course, of the midwives. 

        When Pharaoh rises to power, he begins his attempts to decimate the Israelite population with slavery, and then he orders the midwives to kill the Israelite boys upon birth. And when the Torah tells us that they refused, it uses the language “vatirena ham’yaldot et haElokim”, “and the midwives feared God”. They have before them a very real and present threat in the form of Pharaoh, who thinks himself a god. But the midwives have fear, or awe, for something greater. 

        It is not, I think, a description of a greater threat. It is not simply that God could strike them down as easily as Pharaoh. Rather, they are able to see something beyond the power of Pharaoh. It is precisely what Bernard Steinberg describes; when the fear stops being about Shifra and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, it becomes instead awe for something greater, something beyond them. 

        And it manifests in action. It manifests in acting with ethical integrity, even when the tunnel-vision of fear might lead them in another direction. 

        They are the best example I can think of for exactly what Maimonides understands about yirah. We are commanded not to be afraid; and we are commanded to be in fear of God. These are not two different things. They are about transformation. They are about spiritual and ethical peripheral vision. 

        Here we are, on the cusp of turning from Jacob’s story to the story of slavery in Egypt. 

        Jacob teaches us that our response to fear should not be to freeze or to flee. We are named from the action of engagement with struggle. And the midwives, to whom we owe our survival in Egypt, teach us that fear of God means widening our spiritual scope. 

        May we have no reason to be afraid in the near future. But if we must contend with fear, may we learn from their examples. 


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