(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...eimah, fear...
(Genesis 25:4) ...asher yatzata misham... (Abraham's instructed his servant to bring back a bride for Isaac from Haran; the servant asks if, should the bride refuse to leave Haran, he should take Isaac back to the land) ...that you went out from.
The Hebrew word for fear is eimah. Actually, there are many Hebrew words for fear, including pachad, yir'ah, chashash and charada. This particular word carries with it the intimation of dread and terror, the kind of fear of the unknown that sends hearts pounding and almost paralyzes us.
What a peculiar way to learn Torah! What could it possibly mean to acquire Torah through mind-numbing, blinding fear?
I purposely use these images because they resonate with a feeling of ignorance. Not knowing which way to turn, what to do, what to say--we've all had the nightmare, and sometimes, unfortunately, that experience. It would seem that such ignorance is the exact opposite of what we hope to acquire with Torah – insight, direction and, above all, wisdom.
The word eimah does not appear at all in this week's Torah portion. However, the hint of it can be found thanks to the interpretive technique called notarikon in Hebrew (acronym in English). The root of eimah is aleph-yod-mem. Such a sequence indeed appears toward the end of the reading in the words asher yatzata misham, meaning,"that you went out from." In context, Abraham has instructed hisservant Eliezer to return to Haran to find a bride for Isaac, and bring her to Canaan. Eliezer asks Abraham what to do if the woman refuses to leave the land of Abraham's family – should he take Isaac back to Haran, the land asher yatzata misham, that you went out from.
Abraham is almost violent in his response. Under no circumstances is Isaac to return to that place; better he should marry a local girl of questionable background than return to leave in the place of eimah, of fear and ignorance. It is that fear and ignorance that Abraham left behind, and only by leaving it behind was he able to arrive in a place of insight, direction and wisdom – that is, a place of Torah.
When Pirkei Avot suggests that fear is one of the ways to acquire Torah, it does not mean that we should seek out fright and terror to shock us into understanding. It means that one way to make Torah our own is to face fear, and to use the wisdom of Torah to mediate the chilling effect that eimah, that fear can have upon us. And if you one can then use that sense of Torah to help others through that fear, to help others avoid that place asher yatzata misham, that you have left behind, then that person is a genuine agent of redemption.
Abraham faced his fears and left them behind. And then he became a guide to his servant and to his son so that they would not have to return to that place he left behind. Abraham may be a distant and inaccessible role model for us, but a modern seven-year-old girl is not. Consider this wonderful and true story from Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Van Nuys, California:
Their daughter, a bright and otherwise articulate second-grader, was having night terrors. Well after midnight she'd awaken screaming hysterically something about death. So her parents brought her to see me.
"I know kids, but I'm not a therapist," I complained.
"We know...you're cheaper," they responded.
So I agreed to speak to the child and see what I could do.
"Sounds like you're really scared at night," I began.
"Yeah," she agreed, playing with the knickknacks on my desk.
"Did something happen that made you so scared?" I inquired.
"No, nothing really," she put me off. Then after a pause, "Well, my dog died."
I jumped on this, "That's terrible! Your poor dog died. You must be really sad about that."
"No," she parried, "he was really old and really sick and really smelly, and I didn't like him very much." And then, "But when he died, I started thinking about my grandma who died."
Having been put off once, I proceeded more carefully, "And what was that like?"
"Well I was only three, so I don't really remember her very well. But I started thinking that if grandma could die, and grandma was mommy's mother, well, that means mommy could die. And that made me really scared."
The knickknacks were set aside, and we were both paying attention now. She was such an open and forthright kid that I thought I'd go a bit farther. "What do you think about when you're so scared?"
"Well, you know, if mommy died, who would take care of me?"
"That is scary."
"Yeah, that's what I think about at night and that's why I start crying."
Of course you're crying. At age 7, you've discovered the single most terrifying element of the human condition and your world is no longer so secure and so bright. Of course you're crying. We've all cried those tears. But we know something else about being human. And you know it too.
"Tell me something, who love you?"
"That's a silly question...lots of people love me!"
"Well, mommy and daddy, my grandpa, and my other grandma and grandpa – I call them Nana and Papa, my Uncle Jack – he's really funny..."
"Wait a second," I held her back and reached to find a piece of coloring paper and a marker. "Start writing. Make a list of all the people who love you."
So we started the list again. "Mommy, daddy, grandpa, Nana, Papa, Uncle Jack..." Soon the list grew long including teachers, doctors, babysitters, the lady at the bakery who gave away cookies. Even the rabbi made the list.
"Here's what I want you to do. Keep this right next to your bed. When you wake up in the middle of the night, and you start thinking those scary thoughts about death, read the list. Read the list of all the people who love you. Read it out loud. Let's see what happens."
She read the list every night before bed. And sometimes in the middle of the night. And the night terrors stopped.
Rabbi Feinstein's story ends there, but his lesson does not. There are lifelines that connect us to each other and to those before us who faced their fears and thus acquired Torah. Here is a practice you already know, but using Rabbi Feinstein's understanding, it can do for you what the little girl's list did for her:
"Before saying Shema Yisrael, we gather the tzitziot, the fringes of the tallit. We wrap them around the fingers and hold them close as we affirm our faith. There are several authoritative interpretations of this custom. But now I have my own. As we gather the fringes, we gather all those who love us and all those we love into our hands. We gather them into one, Echad – the oneness that give us the courage to face all the terrors of being human and continue to live with hope and with faith. To feel their collective love, is to feel the presence of the One who loves us."
And Rabbi Moline adds, thus you acquire Torah.