Feeling afraid

Insights into Jewish thought and practice: Feeling afraid, equal rights and thoughts on Parshat Naso.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple

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Q. Isn’t the verse from Psalms unrealistic – "The Lord is with me, I shall not fear" (118:6)?

A. The song says, "Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect: I whistle a happy tune, so no-one will suspect I’m afraid".

The Jew says, "Whenever I feel afraid, I know I’m not alone: I say 'Shema Yisra’el', and never do I moan".

With God there, the fear does not magically evaporate, but it loses its force.

The sages (Avodah Zarah 65a) tell a story about the great scholar Rava, who was deputed to bring a gift to an official of the Parthian regime.

He found the official lying on a bed of roses surrounded by beautiful maidens. The official looked scornfully at the ascetic sage and said, "Do you have anything like this in your World to Come?"

Rava retorted, "We have something better, which is bliss, undaunted by fear of governments."

As they were talking a messenger arrived from the government, requiring the official to appear before an investigatory panel on charges of misconduct.

Suddenly all the bluster went and the terror-stricken official lost interest in his flowers and maidens.

Of course there were many times in history when Jews were confronted with threats and attacks, but the Jewish response was to say, "God is with me, and I will overcome."


Q. Is it acceptable for male and female congregants to join in singing "Adon Olam?

A. The Talmud (Sotah 48a) objects to two types of mixed singing:
1. When men sing and women then join in, and

2. When women sing and men then join in.

The second case is regarded more negatively than the first. The rationale of both appears to be that when one gender starts and waits for the second to join in, unholy thoughts may be aroused.

Rabbi J Simcha Cohen, formerly of Mizrachi in Melbourne and an acknowledged halakhic writer, notes a third scenario which the Talmud does not record at all, i.e. when a community sings together in unison.

In that situation the singing is not structured on male-female lines and neither men nor women are paying specific attention to the melodic tones of the other gender; they are singing as a community (“Intermarriage and Conversion: A Halachic Solution”, 1987, chap. 19).

However, this does not justify a mixed choir, which is, by definition, structured to take note of the different group of voices.


Q. In the eyes of God, do we all have equal rights?

A. Some countries have a Bill of Rights that spells out people’s entitlements. But many of us claim all sorts of extras – not just free medicine, free education and free handouts, but special status, influence and regard.

In some cases there is an actual right which was won after a long struggle; in others there is a broad consensus, such as that nations are entitled to self-determination; in others the “rights” are wishful thinking.

The question of equal rights raises the deeper question of equal status. Are we all equally important in the eyes of God, i.e. in a philosophical sense?

The answer has nothing to do with our size (“I’m bigger than you, therefore I’m worth more”), with our colour (“I’m white, therefore I’m superior”), with our voice (“I can shout louder, therefore I matter more”), with our heredity (“My father was a great man, therefore I’m special”).

Nor does it depend on how much we have in the bank, how many cars we have, how much social standing or political influence we possess.

A person’s status is intrinsic to their personness.

The Tosefta (Sanhedrin chapter 8) says that Adam was created alone so that no-one could claim that they had a better measure of natural endowment.

Psalm 145 teaches that God’s mercies extend over all His creatures.

The Tanchuma to Deut. 29:9 says that no-one is better just because they’re male, female, young, old, of high rank or lowly.

The prophets say, “Has not one Father created us all?” (Mal. 2:10).

Yes, I know that this is not always how it works in a diverse and often defective world, but the equality of all human beings in the eyes of God remains the ideal.


In making the Tabernacle ready for use, each tribal prince had to bring his own offering (Num. 7:2). There were twelve tribes, twelve princes, twelve offerings.

The rabbis derived many lessons from this Biblical verse. Maybe the overall lesson to be learned is that every tribe had its own identity and its own contribution to the total project.

No-one could say that any one tribe or group of tribes mattered more than any other. They all had their role and their own importance.

The same can be said of the many groups that make up the spectrum of today’s Jewish people. Ashkenazim are no more precious to God than Sephardim or vice-versa. Chassidim are no more important than non-chassidim.

There is no reason to denigrate those who uphold different practices than our own group. Every tribe is valuable; every group has its own worth.

So long as they all make an honest attempt to live by the Divine law, God rejoices in them all.


On occasions when there are no kohanim present or they do not duchan, the chazan asks God to give us "the threefold blessing".

The reference is to the three sections of "bir’kat kohanim" from this week’s Torah reading. The first section has three Hebrew words, the second five and the third seven, adding up to 15 words.

15 is the number of steps leading up to the main hall of the Temple, and 15 is the number of Psalms of Ascents.

It is a significant number, marking progress to the culminating word, "shalom". No-one can object to a blessing for peace; "shalom" is the only vessel able to hold all the blessings God wants us to have (Mishnah Uktzin 3:12).

But "shalom" in this context is probably "sh’lemut", "completeness". If we have the physical, economic and spiritual boons listed in the priestly blessing, we are complete human beings.

The end of Kohelet says "ki zeh kol ha-adam" – not "for this is the whole duty of man", but "this is the complete man" who is ready to fulfil the law of the Sh’ma, to love God "with all your heart, soul and might".


Moses and Aaron were instructed to be careful with the job specification of the Kohatites. Otherwise these members of the tribe of Levi would find themselves “cut off” (Num. 4:17-18).

The punishment of being “cut off”, “karet”, is frequently referred to in the Torah.

Often we are told that someone who commits a serious transgression would have their soul “cut off from amongst its people”. If an Israelite eats chametz on Pesach, for instance, “that soul shall be cut off from Israel” (Ex. 12:15).

The English translation of karet is usually “extirpation”, but that in itself tells us very little.

All the sources agree that it is a punishment that comes from God for a deliberate offence (since it is a punishment from Heaven, karet can not be understood, despite some translations, as excommunication, in the popular sense of that word). It applies to 36 types of transgression listed in the Torah (Mishnah K’ritot 1:1).

There is halachic debate about whether a person deserving of karet can also be punished by a human law court, and whether the court’s punishment now exempts a wrongdoer from karet (Makkot 13a/b, 23a/b).

But what is the nature of karet?

The leading view is that it means premature death, commonly understood as death before the age of 60.

Often, as in the Yom Kippur confessions, karet is listed with “ariri”, childlessness.

But no-one should jump to conclusions. It does not necessarily follow that someone who dies before 60, or a person who has no children, has committed one of the 36 offences listed as deserving of karet. Suffering is not necessarily because of sin.

But on the other hand, are there not people who sin and do not seem to suffer? Where is their karet?

Maimonides answers that a serious sinner who has not repented is indeed punished, by being denied life in the World to Come – i.e. for them, this life is all there is, and they are cut off from any chance of an afterlife (Hilchot T’shuvah 8:1).

Rabbi Raymond Apple was for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Jewish religious issues. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at http://www.oztorah.com