Fear is contagious—but so is hope.
This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, offers laws around warfare. After describing how the leadership prepares the troops for battle, we get an extraordinary verse, in which the officials declare: “Is there anyone here who is afraid and disheartened? Let him go home, lest his brother’s heart melt as his heart has.”
Commenting on this passage in his wonderful book about our fall holy days, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew notes: “The assumption beneath this admonishment is staggering in both its scope and its simplicity: we all share the same heart. . . We look like separate bodies. We look like we are discrete from one another. Physically, we can see where one of us begins and another one of us ends, but emotionally, spiritually, it simply isn’t this way. Our feelings and our spiritual impulses flow freely beneath the boundaries of the self, and this is something that each of us knows intuitively for a certainty. . . . So if someone is afraid, the Torah tells us, we had better send him home from battle before the fear spreads from his heart to ours. The fear is more real than the self.”
Torah’s wisdom is uncannily applicable in our current environment. Fear is, indeed, wildly contagious. Anyone even remotely familiar with the political discourse in this election year knows how tempting it is for a candidate to run on a platform of fear—especially fear of the Other, of the unknown, of change. To portray our nation as a sort of malevolent dystopia is to conjure up deeply rooted fears. As conservative columnist David Brooks (who will be speaking in Boise this month) noted in a piece this summer, it is all to easy to take the pervasive collection of anxieties that plague America and concentrate them on the most visceral one: fear of violence and crime. Brooks concludes: “Historically, this sort of elemental fear has proved to be contagious and it does move populations.”
But Torah reminds us time and again that hope, too, can spread from heart to heart, just as readily as fear. “Be strong and have courage”—so Moses speaks to Joshua, and Joshua to the people. So one generation encourages one another, linking our hearts not in terror but in love and compassion and promise. As we move toward Rosh Hashanah, we renew our souls, individually and collectively. May we strengthen one another, generating holy sparks of light that spread out into the world and dispel the darkness of fear.