Think Again: Sometimes a little fear is a good thing

On Succot, we take the emotional high experienced at the end of Yom Kippur, incorporate feeling of closeness into every day life, by living in the succa.

Succa Building 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Succa Building 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
‘Last night, he was hated before God, disgusting, distant and abominable [in His sight]. And today, he is beloved, a delight, intimate, a close friend’ (Hilchot Teshuva 7:3). Thus does Maimonides describe the feeling of closeness to God achieved by a penitent through the scorching self-examination and repentance of Yom Kippur.
On Succot, we take the emotional high experienced at the end of Yom Kippur, and incorporate that feeling of closeness into our every day life, by living in the succa. The succa recalls the clouds of glory that surrounded the children of Israel throughout their 40 years in a barren, howling desert.
Those clouds of glory departed after the sin of the Golden Calf, and only returned on 15 Tishrei, the first day of Succot, as a sign that God had fully accepted our repentance.
The clouds enveloped our ancestors, as it were, in God’s loving protection. And when we exit our fixed dwellings and live for seven days in temporary dwellings, we attempt to recreate that same feeling of being directly under divine protection. Our vulnerability to the elements makes us more aware of our dependence on God and forces us to work on our bitahon (trust in God).
BITAHON IS a quality we will all need as we confront the uncertain and ominous future facing us. The 17-nation eurozone is melting down before our eyes, and the impact will be felt far beyond Europe, including in Israel for whom Europe is the biggest trading partner. Thus far markets have turned a firm thumbs down to every measure taken by European leaders. CNBC’s headline, “Global Meltdown: Investors Are Dumping Nearly Everything,” sums up the mood.
Even as European parliaments debate the second bailout to avoid Greek bankruptcy, the Greeks have already announced that they will not meet the prescribed debt targets.
And the Greek economy is, by virtue of its relatively small size, the least of Europe’s problems. Countries many times larger, like Spain and Italy, face a situation where they will soon be unable to borrow to cover their debts. Faced with the wreck, European leaders have adopted the look of deer caught in the headlights. Every move has been too little and too late.
George Soros’s billions attest to his acumen as a student of financial markets.
When he says that European authorities “have lost control of the situation” and “financial markets are driving the world towards another Great Depression,” he cannot be ignored. Mohammed El-Erian, CEO of PIMCO Investments, which manages a trillion dollars in assets, including the world’s largest mutual fund, says that an institutional run on French banks has already begun, and may soon be followed by the flight of retail depositors.
“Investors seem to doubt the stability and even the survival of the French banking system as we know it,” writes Prof. Walter Russell Mead of the Council on Foreign Relations.
A worldwide crash of 2011 would be far worse than that of 2008, as virtually every country in the world has far few resources to deal with the consequences today than it did three years ago.
FOR THE six million Jews of Israel, the peril is even greater, if slightly less immediate.
Former Jerusalem Post editor Bret Stephens recently summarized a month’s worth of ominous events in The Wall Street Journal.
On August 18, eight Israelis were killed just north of Eilat, by terrorists who crossed the border from Sinai. The Egyptian army has lost control of the Sinai to c tribes affiliated with al-Qaida. From August 18 to 24, 200 large-caliber rockets and mortars were fired from Gaza at Israel, a reflection of the higher caliber weaponry that has flooded Gaza since the downfall of Hosni Mubarak. And on September 9, thousands stormed the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, eager to lynch any Jew they could get their hands on. That mob was primarily drawn from the ranks of democratic reformers, not the Muslim Brotherhood, a demonstration of the endemic anti-Semitism of Egyptian society.
On September 1, Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Israel, and a week later Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkish warships would escort future Gaza flotillas, thus threatening direct military confrontation with Israel. Most ominous of all, Iran announced that it was moving its nuclear enrichment facilities to an impregnable mountain fortress. Various credible reports also announced that Iran had achieved nuclear weapons capacity.
From elsewhere, there was more unhappy news. ABC News reports that up to 20,000 heat-seeking missiles have gone missing from Libyan weapons depots. No commercial airliner in the world is safe from attack from such missiles. No wonder Victor Davis Hanson, one of Israel’s most ardent and articulate defenders, was prompted to publish in the National Review a piece entitled “Can Israel Survive?: The country has never been in more danger.”
WHAT IS striking about both the security threats facing Israel and the developing worldwide financial crisis are how poorly our best minds have fared with respect to anticipating the threats, much less controlling them. Since the onset of the so-called “Arab Spring,” at least half a dozen Arab countries have experienced popular revolts, and some form of regime change has taken place in three of them. Not one expert predicted anything like what has taken place.
The somewhat incoherent responses of the Obama administration – i.e., a quick call for long-time allies like Mubarak to step down versus a much more timid response to the brutal suppression and deliberate targeting of unarmed civilians in Syria by long-time nemesis Bashar Assad – is but one manifestation of how badly surprised were policymakers around the world.
The factors rendering Middle East regimes unstable have long been in place, but the immediate trigger for the Middle East popular revolts – the doubling of global wheat prices – was pulled far from the purview of Middle East experts. The riots in Tunisia, followed by those in Egypt, were initially about bread prices, and high commodity prices limited the ability of Syria’s dictator Assad to pacify his population with price subsidies. Those rising prices were themselves the result of a confluence of factors thousands of miles removed from the Middle East – drought in Russia, growing affluence in China and Asia leading to a newfound taste for grain-fed beef and pork, and the diversion of immense swaths of American farmland from wheat to corn in order to reap the subsidies for ethanol.
With respect to the worldwide debt crisis, the best and the brightest are guilty not only of sins of omission – e.g., a failure to foresee – but also of commission. In The Quants: How a New Breed of Math Whizzes Conquered Wall Street and Nearly Destroyed It, The Wall Street Journal’s Scott Patterson describes how young hotshots, relying on theoretical models, convinced the most sophisticated investment bankers that it was possible to bundle and trade vast numbers of mortgages, knowing little about the underlying value of the individual mortgages.
Rather than allocating risk, as they were designed to do, the complex instruments they created served to link financial institutions around the world in one death grip – like a drowning swimmer pulling down would-be rescuers.
Keynesian economic models showing how many jobs would be created per x billions of increased government spending helped President Barack Obama sell an $847 billion economic stimulus plan as necessary to prevent unemployment from reaching 8%. Unemployment, however, soon passed 9% and has remain there. The plan to link 17 diverse national economies together through one common currency – the euro – was an attempt by European elites to create an economic colossus to rival the United States. Today, the eurozone looks more like something designed by Dr. Frankenstein.
FEAR IS NOT necessarily a bad thing during this month of repentance, especially if it reminds us of the limits of our knowledge of the complex interactions of world events and warns of the hubris of imagining that we are perfectly capable of controlling our fates. But despair that turns us into passive bystanders at a train crash is no answer either. A closer embrace of God, as our ultimate protector, saves us from that despair and provides us the means of dealing with calamitous events if they take place. That is the message of Succot, zman simhateinu – the time of our rejoicing.
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.