The Fear of Isaac

You are commuting home on a familiar route, your mind in a freeway fugue. Traffic is moderate at this hour, and you are cruising just above the 65-mph speed limit. Without warning, you see two cars careening toward each other in the lane before you. You slam on your brakes and battle to control your car as it hurtles, screeching, toward the accident. Your mind signals, “So, this is it” with a nauseating sense of inevitability.

But as you brace for the collision, the cars in front of you move in different directions and you pass unscathed through the opening. What seemed an inevitable sentence of doom has been miraculously averted. You feel an enormous sense of relief, and then a commensurate outpouring of spontaneous gratitude: “Thank God for having spared me this awful sentence.”

According to Menachem Ben Shlomo, a thirteenth-century commentator, you have just had an experience of Pachad Yitzchak, the “fear of Isaac.” Mentioned only twice in the Torah and not once in the Talmud, this unusual phrase comes up in our High Holiday liturgy. It stems from Yitzchak’s near death on Mt. Moriah, when his life was spared at the last minute by an intervening angel.

The concept of “Pachad Yitzchak” is about religious relief experienced in the aftermath of extreme emotions. The fear/relief sequence is an emotional seesaw experience. As a propaganda technique, it capitalizes on a fearful experience that creates an openness that can then be capitalized on. It is the idea behind the “good cop/bad cop” dynamic, in which one officer’s tough interrogation is followed by a cup of coffee and an understanding smile from a different officer. The same principle also has been used in advertising, where the sequence is fear/relief/commercial message. One example creates a scene where we fear for the wellbeing of a mouse, followed by relief for its survival, followed by an advertisement for cheese.

How might we understand this automatic sense of overwhelming gratitude we feel after extreme fear? Neuroscientists explain some of it in terms of a sudden flooding of specific neurotransmitters to various parts of our brain. There is even a burgeoning field of “neurotheology” that investigates the link between neuroscience and religious and spiritual experience. At its best, this field provokes some fascinating questions about the nature of reality in general and spiritual or religious experience in particular. Does understanding how mystical experiences affect the workings of the physical brain detract from their significance? Are some people hardwired to seek out religious answers to life’s questions?

In a moment of extreme fear, we are stripped of all our ego defenses. This fear is not existential anxiety — that diffuse and vague feeling that keeps us keyed up without a specific reason — but rather a pure and deep fear felt as we stand naked, helpless, and defenseless before God, just as Yitzchak did when lying prone on the altar before Abraham’s outstretched knife. This is the vulnerability we feel when there is nowhere to hide, when we declare, “Hineni,” “Here I am.” This vulnerability is itself a terrifying thought for most of us. But Pachad Yitzchak reminds us that this fear can bring us into unmediated contact with a deeper reality: We are ultimately naked, helpless, and defenseless before God, before life’s unfolding. That deep truth evokes a variety of responses in us, one of which is a sequence of deep worship and profound gratitude. This is, essentially, what we pray for at the High Holidays — that we be granted this terrifying and uplifting truth about ourselves and our relationship to God while standing safely in our pews.

The Fear of Isaac


Josh Gressel

Josh Gressel

Josh Gressel is a clinical psychologist in private practice in the San Francisco Bay area and a student of Jewish mysticism. He gratefully acknowledges his teacher, Rabbi David Derovan of Beit Shemesh, Israel, who helped him with source material on “Pachad Yitzchak,” and neuroscientist Jacob Rinaldi, who directed him to relevant neuroscientific source material.

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The Fear of Isaac

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