The vast majority of Muslims reject violence, but the absence of the notion of divine self-limitation has important implications for Islam.
A constant diet of bad news dished out by ratings-driven media that is ideologically committed to logically impossible ends is bound to create even worse news. No wonder anxiety is the background noise of our self-absorbed, politically-obsessed culture. The concept, called “angst” by the existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, author of the celebrated Fear and Trembling, has always existed in some form. But modernity has exaggerated the effects of anxiety through widespread narcissism and nihilism, without the added palliative of redemption and renewal so central to the Abrahamic tradition.
The inevitable paradox must mystify materialists who consider economic well-being paramount. Why do some of the richest citizens on earth feel so lost? Why is it, asks Michal Oshman in her touching and important new book titled What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?, “that in our society, where more people than ever enjoy freedom and choice, it has become a struggle to feel happy?” In particular, she questioned herself: why would an intelligent, beautiful, happily married, successful mother of four, living in an ever-more prosperous Israel, be so deeply and consistently afraid? As the Head of Company Culture, Diversity, and Inclusion at TikTok Europe, Oshman would seem an unlikely source of a digest of ancient wisdom. But when she found a balm for her anxiety in Jewish ideas, she had to share it: for it can apply to anyone, Jew and gentile alike.
To be sure, she had legitimate reasons for anxiety—like most of her co-religionists, whose share of human suffering this side of Eden has been uncommonly bountiful. It cannot be a coincidence that the most often proclaimed commandment in the Bible is “Do not be afraid;” in the King James version, “fear not” or “be not afraid” appears 103 times. More telling yet, the Hebrew word for fear, חֲרָדָה, (haradah, “to shudder”), bears opposing meanings: in its negative sense, the word refers to a debilitating, even paralyzing dread, while its positive connotation is “exhilarating,” and “awe-inspiring.” The word itself contains the impetus: from dread comes delight, in the life-affirming oscillation of faith.
That Michal encountered dread in early life, both on a personal level and in its broader context, is beyond question. She writes: “My grandparents on both sides were Holocaust survivors and their firsthand experience of genocide left them permanently traumatized. Therefore, the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis in the Second World War was not a piece of history to me: it was an integral part of my life from the moment I was born.” As Israel’s top forensic pathologist, moreover, her father performed thousands of autopsies on children as well as adults who died from unnatural causes. He would bring home photographs, which he tried to conceal from her, yet Michal managed to see them anyway.
And then there were the constant terror attacks during her teenage years in Israel. “My greatest fear wasn’t the explosion, getting injured, or even dying, it was the fear of ending up as a corpse in my father’s morgue. I would fear his reaction to his daughter’s dead body, the pain and horror that would cause him.” She was told to always sit by the window on the bus and open it, to minimize injuries in case a bomb tore through it.
Nor was death the only, let alone main, source of her fears. Like so many other children of whom much is expected, she dreaded being rejected, disappointing people, aging, making mistakes, failing. She lived in a near-permanent state of fear. But she wouldn’t give up; she tried everything, including years of psychotherapy. Nothing worked. She despaired, and almost came to believe her therapists’ intimation that she was damaged for life.
Until, that is, she “slowly began to discover the inspirational texts of Judaism” —and everything changed. “[S]omething promising and positive was evolving inside me. It was an understanding of the soul.” To possess a soul is not enough; we must also understand it and cherish it, for it is a divine gift. Writes Michal:
The meaning of the word “soul” in Hebrew—neshama—is related to the Hebrew word for “breath.” That’s because we first hear about the neshama when God created the first human, Adam. The Torah says: “And God formed man from the dust of the earth, and He blew into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7)
It happened around Passover, when she suddenly realized that Egypt (in Hebrew, Mitzrayim, meaning “boundaries,” or “narrow straits”) was not merely a physical country but “any place where you are not free, where you are chained to something.” For Michal, it was her grandmother’s story of her near-fatal escape from a train carrying thousands of other captured Polish Jews to Auschwitz. She didn’t blame her grandmother for telling her, on the contrary: “I knew the reason she shared this horror with me was to prepare me for life, to build my own survival instinct. ‘This could happen again,’ is what she used to say.” But it undeniably took a toll:
For the first fifteen years of my life I dreamt about the Nazis. . . . Everything worried me. I would wake up in the middle of the night and check that my parents were breathing. I became obsessed with the pain and suffering of the world, and felt guilty about enjoying myself. How could I enjoy the pleasures of life when there were so many tragic things happening out there? What if my actions would cause harm? I became a people pleaser, wanting to make everyone happy and doing everything in my power to stop things from going wrong.
She could have turned into a progressive activist obsessed with so-called equity, virtue-signaling to other people-pleasers. Instead, she fought against resentment and envy, while recognizing that such feelings are perfectly human and surmountable. She resisted seeking to “fix” what had been broken so as to make herself “perfect” —a concept both chimeric and misguided; and yes, she learned to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. But above all, she addressed the basic question: “[W]hy do we always feel the need to shout the loudest, to solve all the problems, to make it all about us?” The answer came effortlessly: “because of fear.” It’s about ego. “We fall in love with our own ideas, we think we know what’s right. And so we don’t leave space for others.” The age-long anti-liberal impulse of mono-think.
Instead, she learned to listen, to share her own thoughts truthfully and seek to grasp another’s perspective —in other words, have real, open, trusting conversations, “with the mindset that the other person is not out to harm us in any way. We should assume their positive intent and make sure we come to the conversation with this approach as well.” We must also stop being afraid of failure. We worry too much “that our mistakes will lead to us being rejected. That we will feel broken from our failure—and will look broken to other people. . . . We are frightened of humiliation, disappointment, damaging our reputation, and letting ourselves (and others) down.”
The most important lesson of all is also the simplest: “Whatever you decide to do in life, whoever you end up being—just be a mensch.” A Yiddish word and a traditional Jewish idea, “it’s one of those words that doesn’t have a direct translation in English, but it essentially means ‘a decent person.’” It was the lesson she learned while on army duty, and later as a consultant to senior leaders. Ultimately, it comes down to taming one’s ego so as to find internal freedom while making space for others.
This is the common sense of Jewish wisdom, its power all the greater for sounding so easy. Principles often do; the hard part is living by them, learning where to apply them and how—and that takes time, the ability to tell yourself the truth, accept what you find, and then move on. To achieve inner peace, Michal has had to re-examine her experiences afresh, yet not dwell in the past. It finally worked, but the results were too life-altering not to share them in her book, hoping they may help others. Revealing her most private memories, inner feelings, and life-changing moments did not come naturally, yet once she did, it liberated her as much as it enlightens her reader.
She ends with the morning prayer, Modeh Ani: “I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.” And she explains: “This prayer is a source of inspiration for me, because if God believes in me, in the soul within me, then I should certainly believe in myself. Each day when you wake up, it is a spiritual wake-up, too. Your soul has been restored once more.”
She thus echoes the words of Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidic Judaism: “From every human being there rises a light.” But does it? Considering the darkness that rises from too many human beings enslaved by despair, hatred, and resentment, worshippers of false gods if any at all, is the sentiment overly naïve? Perhaps so; and yet, what else can give hope if not the promise of redemption to which we can contribute as best we can, knowing we are not alone.