These words have become part of a song associated with the end of Shabbat, Al tira avdi Yaakov, “Fear not, My servant Jacob!” (cf. Jer 30:10, 46:27).
The connection with Saturday night may be the fear of what the coming week might bring. A serene, peaceful Sabbath day has to come to an end, and moving back into the often difficult world outside is never easy.
In periods of persecution it was a harsh world, but even in ordinary times there are worries and problems from which no-one is immune.
On a broader plane, we all feel a degree of apprehension when we face new challenges and new chapters in our lives. We are certainly apprehensive when facing an operation, illness, the decline of our powers, even the onset of death. We feel afraid when we think of the constant global convulsions and international crises.
No-one can pretend that they never feel afraid. It goes right through our bodies. No wonder the Psalmist said, “Heal me, for my bones are afraid!” (Ps. 6:3).
But what does “heal me” mean? Does it imply, “Stop me being afraid”? A tall order.
Adon Olam makes it easier when it assures us we are not alone: HaShem li v’lo ira – “The Lord is with me: I shall not fear”.
The Midrash adds, don’t be paralysed with fright; when Jacob was away from home and dreamed about the ladder linking earth and heaven, God’s message to him, as the Midrash puts it, was, “Wake up and start climbing” (Lev. R. 29:2) – i.e. unfreeze your body and mind; do what you can! The first thing is to ask your mind what options you have; there are always some.
This is all very well, but aren’t we still going to be afraid? The answer implied in the Psalmist’s prayer, “Heal me”, is “Help me to handle the fear!”
Fear is actually not always a bad thing. Kohelet might have said in his famous chapter, “There’s a time for everything”, “There’s a time to fear, and a time not to fear”.
There’s a good type of fear. We should fear God, and not do unworthy things in His sight. We should fear ignorance, and acquire (and spread) knowledge and understanding. We should fear illness, and help medicine advance. We should fear loneliness, and learn to discover other people. We should fear dictators, and stand firm for democracy and freedom.
This does not mean to say that every fear is good. There’s a bad type of fear. The Psalmist knows a great deal about it. He constantly speaks of the fear that evil-doers “will come upon me to eat up my flesh” (Psalm 27:2), that he will be caught up min hametzar, “in a narrow strait” (Ps. 118:5) from which there is no escape.
But with all his fear and trepidation he still finds an answer. God will take his hand and lead him out by a means of escape he had not known – or He will lift him up upon a rock (Ps. 27:5), which may mean that he will be lifted up above his troubles and say, “Nothing can break my spirit!”