Three Cheers for Fears

Are you afraid? Maybe you fear inflation eating away at your savings. Perhaps you see evil ideologies racing to entrap the families you love and the children you are raising. Rising rates of random violence in the streets might have you nervous about going out.

Maybe, just maybe, there is a silver lining.

Ancient Jewish wisdom teaches that the physical realities of the world in which we live provide vital clues to spiritual realities. This is why we should not ignore a crucial spiritual clue we gain from an amazing fact about birth.

Any child who has innocently “helped” a chick be born or a butterfly “escape” its cocoon discovers that they have inadvertently harmed the new life that was struggling to shed their egg or skin. Those newly arrived creatures need to endure their struggle in order to help them survive.

Immediately after a human baby’s birth, doctors perform an assessment of the newborn’s health. Medical personnel rate the baby’s respiration, heartbeat, appearance, and other factors to determine whether any intervention is required. This is called the APGAR score.

According to many researchers, babies born by caesarean section typically score significantly lower than those who arrived through the birth canal.

It should be just the opposite! The natural childbirth process squeezes and pushes the infant in ways that some child welfare activists would outlaw if they could. The child born through caesarean section is spared that entire trauma. Yet, it turns out that the stressful exertion is helpful.

The spiritual insight we get from birth is that we humans not only can get stronger from adversity, but sometimes we actually need it.

I am slow to quote the slightly bizarre nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, but he did make two interesting observations.

In what has become a well-known phrase, he noted “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Later, recognizing the centuries of persecution and oppression to which European Jews had been subjected, he made an astounding assertion: “…. The Jews, however, are beyond any doubt the strongest, toughest, and purest race now living in Europe.” (Beyond Good and Evil, 1886) The Jews, says Nietzsche, were strengthened by adversity.

Before Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin developed the polio vaccine in the middle of the twentieth century, the disease was the most dreaded childhood scourge in America. One of its peculiarities was that it disproportionately struck upper-class families. Doctors theorized that the tougher, less hygienic existence of poor people offered them a degree of immunity. We see once again that adversity can help to produce strength.

Bear with me for a moment as we contemplate the horrors of slavery that the Hebrews endured in Egypt. The book of Exodus offers graphic descriptions. They were oppressed and enslaved. Their baby boys were murdered. They were beaten and tortured, and their families were decimated.

All of which makes the following Torah verse utterly incomprehensible.

You shall not abhor the Egyptian because
you were a stranger in his land.
(Deuteronomy 23:8)

Excuse me! We Hebrews did not exactly choose to be a stranger in his land, and while we were there he was a pretty appalling host. Yet we owe the Egyptian a courtesy? How can this be?

Ancient Jewish wisdom provides the answer. Egypt was the womb of the nation of Israel. It was in that tough and harsh environment that a nation grew which later was able to endure the traumatic travails of birth—the Exodus. Interestingly enough, the Hebrew word for Egypt—Mitzrayim—actually means narrow and constricted passageway, just like a birth canal.

So yes, Jews may not abhor the Egyptian even until today because over three thousand years ago, the Jewish nation was forged within that nation. The Egyptians may not have meant well, and they did wrong, but they surrounded the Jewish nation with challenge and adversity that forged the strength that would allow the Jewish people to survive for millennia. From the position of the one who suffered, a healthier future comes from harnessing the strength born of adversity, rather than clinging to resentment.

Everyone can picture a man who grew up in utter poverty but eventually became wealthy. He now gives his grandchildren every latest gadget and technological wonder. They get driven to school in cars with heated seats rather than walking in the rain and snow. Is he doing them a favor?

If it is a tougher year, do not quake in fear. Take whatever steps are necessary for you and yours to survive, and then embrace the adversity and cherish the challenge. It will make you stronger and can help lead you to success.

This Thought Tool was adapted from an article from January 2009 that appears in the Thought Tool Set.

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