Keep Calm and Face Yourself
Rav Yoel Gold shares an incredible story in a recent video entitled “Face Your Bears.”
Effie Eitam, a commander in the Israeli army for thirty years, had been through several wars, escaped frightening explosions, and led missions that most would experience only through a television screen. But no war, bomb, or gunshot could prepare him for the terror he was about to face.
Years after serving in the army, he had the privilege of embarking on a unique fishing trip in the wilderness of Alaska. Arriving at this location required flying in three separate airplanes to reach the camp, which was on the outskirts of civilization.
When he was on the final aircraft approaching the campsite, the pilot announced, “There is only one dangerous animal here, the grizzly bear. If you come across a grizzly bear don’t run, don’t scream, and don’t crouch down. Stay still and calmly say, ‘Hey, bear! I am fishing here and I intend to stay.’”
Effie, and the other passengers, laughed at the absurdity of the advice. Effie rolled his eyes and joked, “I’m sorry, but since when do bears understand English? What do you mean talk to the bear?”
The pilot responded, “Trust me, it has worked every other time, and it can work for you, too.”
The passengers did not anticipate an encounter with a bear and quieted down for the remainder of the flight.
Almost immediately upon landing, Effie set out to fish. He was surrounded by miles of breathtaking splendor and felt both alone and at one with nature. He brought nothing to the river except a clear mind, fishing supplies, and a tuna sandwich. He was enjoying the serenity when suddenly he heard a rustling noise nearby in the brush.
He looked ahead and saw an enormous grizzly bear approaching. His body felt weak, and his first instinct was to scream or run away. Thankfully, he instead paused in his chair.
He contemplated running but knew that the grizzly bear was capable of reaching speeds upwards of 35 miles per hour. If he ran, the bear was going to catch him, and he would die. Additionally, the bear could out-climb him as well. Screaming for help was useless; his voice would be swallowed up by the vast nature surrounding him. He was out of options, but then he recalled what the pilot advised.
Reluctantly, he stood, faced the bear, and firmly said, “Hey, bear. I intend to stay here and fish.”
This seemed to incite the bear further, as he rose on his hind legs, doubling in size while emitting a huge growl. The bear appeared like it was about to attack, and Effie was sure this would be the last moment of his life.
Nevertheless, he kept calm, stared straight ahead, and said, “Hey bear, this is my place. I intend to fish here.”
The bear remained standing, but after a few moments, it dropped down, swam downstream, and began catching fish in his jaw.
Days later, when the excursion ended and Effie returned to the airplane, he bombarded the pilot with questions. “I encountered a bear and your technique worked! Does the bear actually understand? What is the secret to this tactic?”
The pilot responded, “It’s simple, really. Under normal circumstances, the bear does not view a human as food. In the hierarchy of the animal kingdom, the human is highest, and the bear naturally respects that. It is only when the human acts like food, by crawling, screaming, or running will the bear respond and attack. But when you face the bear, and he hears a human voice, he honors the hierarchy of the animal kingdom.”
He continued, “When we act like humans, the bear eventually backs down.”
As I watched this video and thought back on this line, I was struck by some powerful, applicable lessons to take away for our daily lives.
Our job is to act with tzelem Elokim. We are mammals with godliness infused within us, which sets us apart from the animal kingdom. Sometimes, we forget we are bestowed with this gift and succumb to our lower selves, which can have far-reaching consequences. Here are three everyday examples of remaining calmly human in the face of some common “bears.”
How many times a day do our children “attack” us with whining, tantrums, and endless negotiations? They test limits, just like the bear was gauging whether Effie was prey or person. Children sometimes throw tantrums or stand tall to assert themselves. Alternatively, they may lose control or instigate a fight until we lose control, too.
When this happens, we must remember the tzelem Elokim inside. Just because your toddler or teenager is having a tantrum, it doesn’t mean we have to reciprocate. Speaking in a calm voice can help them eventually back down from their anger.
Children need us to set limits and stick to them in order to feel safe and secure in the social and familial hierarchy.
Next time your child approaches you like a bear, visualize yourself calmly stating your intention like Effie did, and stick to it. Most of the time, they will respect it (regardless of whether or not they transmit this outwardly).
The concept of remaining human certainly lends itself to interpersonal relationships. We all have challenging personalities in our lives. They might be negative coworkers, or even friends or family members. These personalities will sometimes approach you and try to “attack” or stir up a reaction.
If we debase ourselves to bad behavior, then the outcome usually leads to more negativity. Ultimately, it gives our “attacker” more fuel, which can further intensify a feud.
We don’t have to engage with anyone at this level. We can instead recall Effie, who calmly stated his intention yet did not veer from his own humanity. You don’t have to run in fear, scream, or act in barbaric ways. We are humans, gifted with tzelem Elokim inside us. Recall this concept when dealing with any difficult person, and you can maintain your dignity.
Ultimately, we have to face ourselves in the mirror and feel proud. By staying calm yet firm, we can achieve that. Difficult people will attack. If we can maintain serenity and visualize ourselves staying true to who we are, whatever the outcome, we will have succeeded.
As a Nation
Rabbi Dovid Revah shared a fascinating concept during his Parshat Shemot drashah. He explained that the lashon, language, of Mount Sinai is sina, hatred. What does Har Sinai have to do with hatred, when Hashem gifted us the Torah, His greatest expression of love?
We are the chosen people, meant to receive this gift of Torah on Sinai. Therefore, as Jews, we must serve as a beacon of light amongst the nations by acting with utmost morality and kindness.
Just like the bear gauging its prey, when we act as Jews we are treated as such. But when we stoop to low levels of dishonesty or apathy, surrounding nations will prowl with venomous hatred. If we do not remember who we are and the integrity we must have, inevitably they will remind us.
Enemies of the Jewish people emerge when we are not doing our job correctly. When we act in a lowly manner they will fight us, but when we stand tall and calmly represent Hashem, then we have won the war, no matter the result.
The Jewish nation has always and will always survive. Any civilization who attempts to destroy us will eventually retreat, just like the bear in the woods.
As a parent, friend, or Jew, we must remember to act with tzelem Elokim at all times. Standing tall, strong, and with self-respect in the face of difficult family, people, or nations has worked before, and can work again. Just keep calm and face yourself.
 Maseches Shabbos 89a