If you think about it, it is a bit mind boggling! An army trained for combat, which must have been prepared for anything because they were on the offensive, must have been trained to be fearless, but in a state of panic they fled for their lives and left everything behind. This allowed the Jews their freedom and plenty of food that came from the empty camps. But how does it make sense that they left everything and fled by foot? It is understood they felt all was hopeless, but at least when retreating take rations and arms in the event of a confrontation; surely they should have taken their horses, to be able to run away quicker! What happened!?
We see how debilitating the emotion of fear can be on a person, even on those who are trained to fight the emotion. When faced with an extremely dangerous situation, natural instincts turn on them and not only can’t they retreat in a prepared and logical fashion, they are forced to flee for their lives and leave everything behind! Even if it makes more sense to ride on horses to get away faster, bring weapons if they need to defend themselves, and also have food and water on hand to survive; alas all was left behind, because that is the nature of fear.
Rav Yitzchok Blazer, a student of Rav Yisrael Salanter, speaks about this in the second chapter of his mussar work, Shaarei Ohr which is found in the Sefer Ohr Yisrael. Comparing it to Fear of Heaven he says: “This quality of fear (referring to fear of Hashem) is unique, different, and distinct from all other types of fear that prevail in the world. For example, it is completely natural to be afraid of dangerous people or threatening situations. Logic and experience dictate that we should fear such things. Hence, by dint of his innate intelligence, a person will experience fear and terror. When confronted with the unknown, fear will instinctively enter his heart and his senses will be heightened. All chambers of his heart will tremble, and his face will reveal his terror. It is true that man has the power to overcome and dampen his fear: sometimes a person will voluntarily endanger himself, for example, by traveling through an unsafe area. Yet his bones will still convulse in fright, even as they obey the dictates of his will. This is because nobody has self-control to banish the essence of fear from his soul. There exists no counsel to entirely neutralize it and remove it from one’s mind and heart.”
Rav Yitzchok Blazer goes on to explain that yiras Shamayim or fear of Hashem and His punishments, which better put is ‘reverence and awe of Hashem,’ is not natural. This, he explaines, was done on purpose, and he elaborates why. He sums up in one of the paragraphs there the essential thesis: “We can now understand why yiras Shamayim is not naturally a part of man’s makeup – for if the fear of Hashem and His punishment were implanted in man’s heart from the outset, this would be the driving force behind his performance of good deeds. His natural fear of incurring Hashem’s wrath would be the reason for his walking on the upright path. This, of course, would infringe on his free will, and his reward would correspondingly be diminished. Hashem, the Source of all that is good, wanted free choice to be entirely in the hands of man, to enlarge the boundaries of human reward as much as possible.” (Click here and here and here for complete Hebrew text.)
This means that the ultimate expression of freedom is to choose to revere Hashem. The result is that the natural fear and panic inside of every person which traps them and does not allow them to think and act logically is the total opposite of yiras Shamayim, reverence and awe of Hashem and His punishment. These were placed into the hands of every human being, to work hard and put in much effort in order to truly attain it on one’s own fruition.
True freedom is not easy to attain but when one does, it is bliss!
Rabbi Dovid Shmuel Milder