Rosh HaShana Day 2 – Directing our Fear

If an army should besiege me, my heart would not fear

“When evils draw in to devour me – my tormentors, my foes.  It is THEY who will stumble and fall.

If an army should besiege me, my heart would not fear, if a battle should be roused against me, still I would trust.”

From Psalms 27 – which is added at the end of daily prayers for almost two months flanking Rosh Hashanah

We recited it this year as the virus was drawing in to devour us.  As the fires besieged us. We could not go outside to socialize for fear of the smoke, we could not invite friends inside for fear of the virus.  We were isolated.  And it was hard, very hard, for our hearts to feel no fear. 

The Hebrew there for “my heart would not fear” is:

לֹֽא־יִירָ֪א לִ֫בִּ֥י

From the root yud. resh. aleph.

The adjective form, describing something something fearsome awful – is norah.

As in the phrase “Yamim Noraim,” which is the Hebrew term for the High Holidays. We usually translate Yamim Noraim as Days of Awe, but might equally well be translated Days of Fear.

In fact, this entire High Holiday prayer book is filled with positives references to Yirah of Adonai – which a generation back was routinely translated as Fear of God.  But most of that fear stuff has been sanitized out of our beautiful new English translation, and replaced with the word “awe.”

Because we really don’t like to feel fear.  It’s not – comfortable.

To quote an American president – in 1933, at the lowest, most frightful point of the Great Depression.   “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

To quote a popular Jewish song, whose words are attributed to Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav: 

“The entire world is a very narrow bridge, and the essential thing is to not be afraid at all.”

Not be afraid at all. If only we could just MAKE ourselves not be afraid.  Banish that feeling from our hearts.

But if that were the goal, why start the Jewish year with a set of holidays focused on cultivating fear?  Why pray for Yirah in our lives?  Who wants to feel fear?

For years, the fear-of-God thing wasn’t working for me, and I would usually just translate it as awe. But this year, it behooves us to look again at Yirah.  

So many of us are filled with so much fear right now.

The fear did not start with the pandemic or with this season’s fires.  We’ve been afraid for years now.

The fear did not start in 2016 either, though for many of us that election put a jolt of it into our already fear-primed pump.  And it has been ramping up month-by-month ever since.

I am afraid now of our country succumbing to totalitarianism.  I was raised on stories of Stalin and Soviet oppression. Of Jews targeted, imprisoned, for their beliefs.  Those fears, implanted when I was young, are activating deep inside of me now.  I know many of you have those same fears – as in the words of the Psalm, they are drawing in to devour you.

In late July, I received an email from a friend whose words were like two hands on my shoulder, shaking me out of my terror.  This friend – I’ll call her Deborah – I treasure for many reasons, among them our political conversations. She sees things very differently from the way I do, and I turn to her to give me a broader perspective. And before I go on, I want to reassure you that Deborah is comfortable with everything I am sharing; she only asked that I not use her real name.

It began with a phone conversation in June. She shared with me a statement that surprised her, but that she was ready to accept because it was made by a politician that she respects. She said, “If I were to read that comment in a particular newspaper” – I won’t name the paper, but she of course did –  “I would dismiss it as a lie.  I don’t trust anything I read there – they’ve lied too often.”

I had to step back mentally, to take that in. The paper she named is one I read almost every morning.  And I know it has a strong slant to its coverage. But I still trust that the factual statements are factual. On the other hand, the politician whose words she trusts is someone about whom I would say, “he’s lied so often, I don’t trust anything he says.”

After a pause, I asked her: “Isn’t it interesting that we are both intelligent, thoughtful readers – and we both have found that there are information sources we don’t trust.  But the ones I trust are the ones you don’t, and the ones you trust are the ones I don’t?”

After that phone call came some back-and-forth by email. In one note, she shared with me frustrations with Facebook that I was totally unaware of.  I knew of the criticisms directed at Facebook from my own political camp – but how could I have not known of a parallel set of concerns coming from the opposite camp?

Then came that July email, several emotional paragraphs in which I encountered an almost perfect mirror image of my own fears.  “To my mind” — Deborah wrote — “ the totalitarian forces that Orwell railed against (in his book 1984) are on the march at home, in America.”  

After reading that email, I was numb for a full day with the shock of recognition. How could it be?   We are afraid of the same exact thing – but we are afraid of each other.

Not personally, of course. I know Deborah to be a person of deep integrity and great compassion. She thinks the same of me. But we are each afraid of the group that the other is a part of.  And we each see the other group pushing our country towards the same dreaded outcome: totalitarianism.

It’s almost as if the fear exists as a miasma in the air between us, in an undifferentiated form.  But when it enters our bodies, it takes the form of our individual concerns.

Which does not mean that the dangers aren’t real.  They absolutely are.  And I am also not saying that the threats on the two sides are equally strong. I obviously don’t think that.  I genuinely perceive existential threats to our democracy.  And though I agree with Deborah that many of the problems she sees are real –  in fact, our conversations have helped me appreciate dangers that I otherwise would not have considered –  I don’t see them posing the same level of threat.  So when she tells me she feels them as existential threats, the best I can do is listen with compassion.

I ask you to try to do the same.  Because whatever happens in November, we have to go forward living with each other.  The alternative, of a splintered nation, is much, much worse.

I am going to unmask.  I feel very vulnerable doing so.  Though CBJ clergy do often address politically charged issues, we have always avoided partisan statements. But if I am going to ask the majority side to listen compassionately to our friends in the minority,  I also need to ask the other side to listen compassionately to us.  Not in the abstract. I am going to challenge you now, plead with you now, to listen to views you might abhor. To be able to hear fears that may seem irrational to you – and not shut out the person who is expressing them.  Because I am going to share both mine and Deborah’s fears.

Here goes…

I am afraid that if we don’t all vote, and if we don’t get involved in encouraging others to vote — early–  this might be our last democratic election.  I am afraid that even this election will not be truly free.  That the postal service has been intentionally set-up to fail. That efforts to stop Russian meddling have been intentionally thwarted.  That years of gerrymandering and voter suppression have been silently navigating our country away from democracy, tilting the scales to allow those in power to stay in power, rather than allowing the will of the people to speak. That the ongoing attacks on the free press, and the undermining of the very concept of factual evidence, allows a politician who is unscrupulous to say anything he wants, and if it pleases his followers, they will believe.  All of this points to the most frightening possibility of all: that in a close, contested election, likely caused by absentee ballots arriving late, the president might claim a victory he has not achieved, and refuse to step down.

I could go on – about the impact of systemic racism, about the implications for climate change. But I will stop.

Because I think that some of you are already resonating with my fears.

If that’s you, I want you to know that the depth of our fear has made life almost intolerable for the minority in our community that voted for President Trump in 2016.  They have had friends and associates break off ties with them.  Many have to hide their political opinions, for fear of losing their livelihood.  That was true already ten years ago – being “out” as a Republican in this part of the country could cost a person in their business.  But the intolerance has enormously intensified, and Deborah sees it accompanied by selective reporting and misrepresentations in mainstream media, by censorship on social media, and by indoctrination in universities and schools – all pushing America to become a place where dissent is dangerous and divergent views are suppressed.  She fears that the professional and corporate worlds are increasingly politicized, that capitalism is under assault, that the Bill of Rights is under assault, that lawlessness is destroying major American cities, that anti-semitism has become normalized on the left, and that self-hatred will destroy us. And, arching above all of it, she is afraid that that censorship and political orthodoxy are blocking us from grappling honestly with issues to find a true path forward.  

And again I could go on. But I will stop.

Do you see how our fears have played off of each other?  How -acting out of our own fears – we have been creating situations that feed the other’s?

And how that means, it is not enough just to address the political problems of the moment.  

We must also address the fear that seeded all this strife. The ominous feeling that has been expanding and expanding for years now, until it has reached this point of bursting.   

We must address the fear with all the emotional and spiritual tools we can access – and we must start with ourselves.

Our friend Rabbi Jennifer Clayman, currently a student in a graduate psychology program, explained that we need to accept our fear.  If we fight against it, it grows. If we ignore it, it morphs into more destructive forms. We need to let ourselves feel it, be able to sit with it and then direct it. 

Tens of biblical verses seek to reassure us with the phrase – אל תירא.  Do not be afraid.  Do not feel Yirah from your enemies. Do not be afraid of another mortal soul.  

But at the same time, we pray every day for God to help us לאהבה וליראה את שמך  to love and fear God’s name. Only God is worthy of your Yirah. 

In other words, there are different types of fear.  Fear may be inevitable, but our prayer is that we replace unhealthy fear with healthy yirah.

Many of us are experiencing an obsessive, driving fear that keeps us on constant high alert. A fear that creates an enemy camp, and drives us to cut off relationships with anyone we think is associated with the enemy. This type of fear might come from inputting hyped up news all day long.  From keeping a news tab open in our browser, and obsessively flicking back-and-forth to it many, many times a day. Or from keep talk radio on in the background all day long.  Or from looking to social media as a primary news source – already a bad idea – and letting it ping us at all hours.

I don’t want to be misunderstood here.  It is crucial that we stay educated and engaged.  But we have to be discerning and thoughtful when we read the news. Exposing ourselves 24/7 to the swirling hysteria is, psychologically, like putting ourselves in a war zone.

“If an army should besiege me, my heart would not fear”

Remember that popular song about the narrow bridge, quoting Rebbe Nachman? Turns out, it’s a misquote.  I’d been singing that song all my life, and did not realize that I was abusing Rebbe Nachman’s teaching–  until Arne Benowitz brought it to my attention, as he was preparing to teach our community this past shavuot.  The original quote was:

“Know that a person must cross a very, very narrow bridge – and the principle, and the essence is not to frighten yourself at all.”

Rabbi Nachman did not tell us not to be afraid.  That is not possible. The bridge is narrow. To be alive is to be vulnerable to pain. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, even when you are scared.  But Rebbe Nachman warns us not to gaze obsessively over the edge, and exacerbate our natural fears. 

Remember the little soundbite from FDR about nothing to fear?  Turns out, that one is a truncation.  In the midst of the great depression, would a US president really tell American families not to be afraid?  Pretend everything is hunky dorey?  No, it was a particular type of fear that he was warning against.  Here is the complete sentence from his inaugural speech: 

“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

When you are afraid, DO something. Even if you can’t see the way out of a mess, just push a little bit in the right direction, and then a little more. As Rabbi Ezray urged yesterday, think about what your sphere of influence is. Take a risk, if necessary, but do something. It’s the paralyzing fear that FDR warned against. The fear that causes us to retreat. 

In Torah, too, nearly all the references to Yirah of Adonai are accompanied by a demand for mitzvah, a demand for action.

Yirah of Adonai is also almost always mentioned hand-in-hand with Ahavah, love.  A healthy fear has to be tempered with love. 

Kabbalah teaches that when we look at the face of another human being, we should see the face of God. And that recognition should inspire love, even when there’s fear.

Too often lately, we have been looking at our fellow human, and seeing only the face of an enemy.

In physical isolation with my family all summer, I was tensing up to that place Rebbe Nachman and FDR warned against.  Obsessive, paralyzing fear.  And over in her isolation, my friend Deborah was doing the same. We were starting to see the face of the enemy all around us. 

But then we looked into each other’s faces – over video, of course.  We were in enemy camps. But because we love each other, we could only see the face of God there. 

And that recognition shocked me out of my destructive fear. 

It is time to let go of our panic.  Let us instead accept the Yirah in our hearts – a healthy fear that pushes us to positive action, and that can be tempered with love.

When we have accepted our Yirah, then we can in wholeness work together, each doing our own piece to heal our nation.