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Creepy crawlies and heebie-jeebies

By Lauren Shapiro

I’m not entirely sure exactly what just happened. It went something like this:

My three-year-old screamed for me from her bed. I leapt up, ready to tackle a sabre-toothed tiger, and sprung into her room, where the nightlight cast a warm glow on the benign outlines of her bed, chair and doll’s house. Her curly golden tresses glimmered like a halo.

“What is it, darling?” I asked, furtively casting my eyes around the room for hiding bogeymen.

Aviva pulled her Hello Kitty duvet cover up past her chin. In a small voice, she answered, “There’s a cockroach in my bathroom.”

Ah. This was a problem, you see, because I have a severe phobia of cockroaches. Not a mild terror or dread, but a proper blood-wringing, mouth-frothing, toenail-curling, bile-inducing phobia. This is strange, considering that I find rats pretty cute and have been known to rescue my husband from the odd snake. Rationally, I understand that animals like those can actually hurt me, while a roach is perfectly harmless; it makes far more sense to be afraid of rats and snakes than it does to be terrified of cockroaches. Yet still, just the thought of those creepy brown feelers and flickery legs makes me want to run shrieking into the street.

But I couldn’t do that now, clearly, because I had to set an example for my daughter. I have no idea where my fear originates, but I am determined not to pass it on to my kids. Fortunately, my university Drama credit kicked into play (and my folks said it wouldn’t help me advance in life. Ha!). I trepidated to the door of the bathroom, cleared my throat and said in what I hoped was a firm, yet kindly, voice: “Cockroach, stay in the bathroom and don’t bother Vivi. Okay?” Then I paused a moment, grappling for my next move, before turning back to Vivi, and saying, “She says okay.” She? Seriously? I thought to myself.

“Did you know that the cockroach is a girl?” I continued. The blonde locks above the Hello Kitty horizon shook slowly. “Well, she is. Do you know what her name is?” I enquired. More shaking of fair ringlets, but this time her eyes shone with some interest, and the duvet dropped to her lap.

“Her name is Sylvia,” I pronounced. Where am I getting this stuff? I thought. “Say, ‘goodnight, Sylvia’.”

“Goodnight, Sylvia,” Aviva responded, politely. I moved over to the bed, kissed her head, wished her sweet dreams and walked out the room.

And that was the end of that. For now, at least. Meanwhile, I find myself sitting at my computer wondering what on earth just happened (but ever so appreciative that I have something to write about for my column deadline tomorrow morning).

Sylvia. Huh. Who knew? I have no idea where that came from, but I think I am beginning to develop a theory as to why it came. Groundless fear is based in mystery: we fear that which we do not know. Once we give something a name, however, we can relate to it on a more human level. This applies whether it’s a cockroach you’re afraid of, or foreigners, or another person’s customs. We need to confront our fears, to get to know them, to truly overcome them. This is the only path to love and peace.

Our scriptures teach us to fear nothing but Hashem. Nineteenthcentury Rabbi Meir Leibush (Malbim) explains that a more powerful fear extinguishes a lesser fear (so if you’re pursued by an angry lion, you won’t worry about a bee that might sting you). Similarly, fearing Hashem trumps earthly fears. Yirat Shamayim (fear of heaven) can empower us by eliminating other paralyzing paranoias.

In preparing the Children of Israel to enter the Promised Land, Moshe counsels not to fear the numerous nations they will have to face (Deut 7:18). He reminds them of the miracles Hashem wrought in redeeming us from slavery in Egypt, and promises similar spectacles – interestingly including a swarm of hornets – to protect His children (the Torah doesn’t mention cockroaches).

But even in Egypt, when Hashem performed such mighty deeds, this was
a last resort. Before each plague, Moshe approached Pharaoh and spoke to him, man-to-man. “Let my people go,” he pleaded. Only when Pharaoh refused to negotiate, did the afflictions begin. Back to the context of the Promised Land, despite Hashem’s assurances of divine assistance, we are still obliged to “call out for peace” before waging war on other cities (Deut 20:10).

I’m a firm believer in respecting all of Hashem’s creations. I’ll always pick talking over fighting with humans, and when it comes to other creatures my approach is similar. If I’m being charged by a raging buffalo (or mosquito), I’ll act in self-defence, but I won’t hurt something that poses me no harm. Unfortunately, roaches fall into this category. When the kids aren’t around, I make Warren catch them with a cup and a magazine and escort the moutside. But in front of the children, I won’t display my heebie-jeebies. I don’t want them to absorb baseless fears. So I had to look that roach square in the – er – bathroom doorway and show my kids that he (sorry, she) has as much right to live on God’s earth as we do. And if a spot of personification helps us to see to the heart of the matter (or the cockroach), then so be it.

Perhaps Hashem was giving me an opportunity to conquer my own fears and grow from the experience. Maybe He was using me to bestow the gift of understanding on my daughter. It could be He was just sending me column fodder. Whichever way, I’m grateful. Now, it’s way past my bedtime, so if you will excuse me I will wish you all – and Sylvia – a good night. Until next time.

"We need to confront our fears, to get to know them, to truly overcome them."