Torah Musings: Waking Up Fearless


Waking Up Fearless

Sarah Pachter

A student of mine showed me a photograph from an African safari which showed her petting and cuddling a lion cub. Looking like it had been photoshopped, the lion nuzzled up against her. They both seemed completely peaceful.

I began to bombard her with questions. “How in the world weren’t you afraid? Didn’t the lion try to attack you?”

She stopped me mid-sentence and showed me her Instagram post about the experience. Apparently, petting the lion was not as easy as it seemed. Other photos showed the animal clawing at her, and her scrapes and injuries were in plain view. The majority of the time, she was terrified, and they only managed to get a few calm shots. Although no photoshopping had occurred, one perfect “money shot” made it seem like the experience was playful and fun-filled. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Her Instagram photo was an attempt to explain to others that social media posts are never what they seem.

This lion escapade reminded me of my own photography experience. A few years ago, my husband and I took beautiful photos to celebrate our ten-year anniversary. We found a stunning location in Laguna Beach and used a photographer who was familiar with the area. She suggested a great park with flowering fields and a huge oak tree which she thought would provide the perfect photo opportunity. It was. We (read: I) had fun posing for various shots, and my husband was a great sport.

As we finished up around dusk prepared to leave the park, we noticed many warning signs regarding mountain lions. The signs advised how to react if encountering one. The suggestions read, Don’t run! Make yourself appear as large as possible. Don’t crouch. Do not turn your back to the lion. Back away slowly while facing the lion, and yell firmly. Since mountain lions prey mostly on deer, dawn and dusk are the most dangerous times in the park. As I read the signs, I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach, realizing we were potentially amidst mountain lions of which we had been previously unaware.

Oh well, I thought, I guess ignorance is bliss. We drove out of the park as fast as possible.

When it comes to fear, ignorance certainly is bliss because fear is dependent on awareness. Awareness can either increase or dissipate fear. For example, the lion is aware of its superseding strength, and therefore it fears no other animal in its kingdom. In turn, the other animals, knowing the same fact, fear the lion.

The Shulchan Oruch cites that every morning we are meant to rise like a lion, ready to serve our Creator.[1] Many commentaries explain that this means we should face the day with zest and energy. However, the source could have used a different animal—such as a deer, known for its alacrity—to analogize our waking habits.

The Shaarei Teshuvah[2] points out that what is unique about the lion’s character is that it fears no other animal in its kingdom. If we intend to overcome our yetzer hara each day, we must act like a lion and wake up fearless.[3] How can we be fearless in the face of the powerful yetzer?

Imagine you are enjoying family time in the living room of your home. Suddenly, one of your children spots a huge black spider and begins to shriek with terror. A child who is not educated in the various spider species would be just as terrified of a daddy long legs as of a black widow—and possible more. For the black widow—often smaller than a daddy long legs—to be terrifying, you must be aware of its dangers.

Now, imagine that as you attempt to calm your children, you collectively hear a thief attempting to break into your home. The fear of the spider will dissipate as long as they imagine the bigger and fiercer danger of a human attacker intent on harm.

Whatever issues we face are frequently trumped by larger fears. One way to overcome our everyday fears is to place the awe of Hashem in the forefront of our minds. If we increased our awareness of Hashem’s influence over our daily lives, if we truly comprehended the immensity of His power, we would not fear anyone or anything else.

A student of mine suffered abuse as a child, and she understandably struggles to overcome her daily fears. When discussing our learning options, we came to the conclusion that emunah would be the perfect antidote. Belief in Hashem, and feeling connected by knowing He is ever-present in the minutiae of our lives, can bring tremendous relief and comfort.

In one aspect, ignorance is bliss, but from a different perspective, a sense of ignorance breeds fear. Like the small child, when we don’t know the potential threat of an intruder, the fear of a spider can still hold its grip over us. In a similar vein, when we are not cognizant of Hashem’s presence, we are left fearing even the smallest of issues. Alternatively, when we place Hashem as King over us, everything else can become trivial.

When we realize how great Hashem is, then all other fears fade. This concept is similar to the way a couple might be engaging in conversation while everyone else around them fades into the background. Hashem, too, must become our focal point.

Saying Modeh Ani is only the first step to increasing awareness. Hashem fills our days with opportunities for mitzvot, all of which can increase the connection to and our awareness of His presence. Everything from brachot and tefillah to chessed and tzedakah bring Hashem to the forefront of our mind. The more we realize how great Hashem is, the more we recognize how small everything else is.

We can gain the power to face our fears head on by placing Hashem, the greatest power, in the forefront of our minds. This is why we recite Modeh Ani upon arising every morning. In this way, we can begin our day fearless, like a lion. When we recognize and are grateful to the source of all life, then we can rise like a lion and begin our day fearing nothing outside of Hashem.

[1] Shulchan Oruch, (1:1)

[2] Shaarei Teshuvah, (1:1)

[3] Praying with Joy, Danel Yaakov Travis (pg. 42)