Everybody is afraid sometimes, and, at those moments, it doesn’t really help to say, “Suck it up and get over it!” So it would be nice if there were subtler strategies and techniques to conquer fear.
Fortunately, one such method is embedded in the story that Jews read Friday as part of the Passover Seder. It’s an attractive technique because it involves kissing, talking and singing your way through fear.
There is, especially at the start, a lot of dread in the Exodus story. Moses is afraid of the responsibility he is given. He’s afraid of being ridiculed and making mistakes. He’s afraid that his people are not worthy or ready to be liberated. The Israelites are afraid of the pharaoh and his soldiers. They are afraid of death but also afraid of really living.
The fear makes people apathetic, torpid and skeptical. The Israelites are unable to absorb words of hope. They shroud their lives in secrecy. As the magnificent Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg puts it in her book “The Particulars of Rapture,” “It is this fear that makes hearing, reverie, and speech impossible: a defensive rigidity that narrows the channels and closes the apertures.”
To harden their lot, according to post-Temple commentaries, the pharaoh forced the Israelite men to do endless labor and sleep in the fields, away from their wives and marital beds. But the women made meals and brought wine to their husbands in the evenings. After drinking and dining, the women would pull out mirrors and the couples would gaze at themselves in the mirror. “I’m more beautiful than you,” the women would say. “I’m more beautiful than you,” the men would respond.
In this way, they would break out of their apathy and accustom themselves to desire. They were covered with dirt and fear, but they challenged each other to see beauty in the other. Gazing jointly into the mirrors, and aroused by each other, they began to sense unexpected possibilities.
Before this desire was kindled, language had lost its power because the people were rendered stone-deaf by fear. But, in this aroused, anticipatory state, their ears open up. Their mouths become looser. From a state of being cramped up in terror, there is a moment of relaxing.
The 18th-century thinker Rabbi Nachman of Breslov wrote that romantic desire clears the throat. Once people start speaking to each other and telling stories to each other, they generate alternate worlds. A story isn’t an argument or a collection of data. It contains multiple meanings that can be discussed, questioned and reinterpreted.
Storytelling becomes central to conquering fear. It’s a way of naming and making sense of fear and imagining different routes out. Storytellers expand the consciousness, waken the sleeping self and give their hearers the words and motifs to use for themselves. Jews tell the Exodus story each generation to understand the fears they feel at that moment. Stories create new ways of seeing, which lead to new ways of feeling and thinking.
After the plagues, Pharaoh is compelled to accept the truth of the story that Moses has been telling about his people. The Israelites are now strong enough to make the leap from bondage.
The nature of that leap is illustrated by an incident that takes place at the start. The normal version of this episode is that God parts the Dead Sea, the Israelites cross, the Egyptians are engulfed and then the Israelites sing in celebration. But the alternate version is that the Israelites are singing at the moment of crossing. They are not singing in celebration. They are singing in defiance of terror.
The climactic break from bondage is thus done in a mood of enchantment. The women, who have experienced the worst suffering, take out their timbrels and become joyful and buoyant. According to some rabbis, Miriam, who leads the singing, has a higher spiritual consciousness than even Moses because, with all the bitterness behind her, she can leap into song. The song produces energy and spiritual generosity. Borrowing from Oliver Sacks, Zornberg writes that the people have become “unmusicked” by fear and pain. They have to become “remusicked.”
Eventually, the Israelites are able to cope with fear. This makes them capable of loving and being loved. The image of fire plays a role in this transformation. At first, fire — even in the burning bush — is just scary. But eventually fire is semicontrolled as candlelight at the center of the meal, intimacy and home.
Zornberg’s emphasis on the role women play brings out the hidden, unconscious layer of the Exodus story. But it also illustrates an important element in the struggle against fear. We’re always told to confront our fears. Take them head-on. But, in the sophisticated psychology of Exodus, fears are confronted obliquely and happily, through sexiness, storytelling and song.