Religious Life

Fear Part 2

Rabbi Alexander Davis

October 2, 2016 / Rosh Hashanah 5777

Kol haolam kulo, gesher tzar meod. V’haikar lo lifached. Kol haolam kulu.
We love the song. At camp they teach us to sing it with hand motions. They teach us to sing it loud. But let’s consider the words: “The whole world is a narrow bridge. The most important thing is not to fear.”

In 1973, when Ariel Sharon led the attack across the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War, this song was broadcast from his command over radios and intercoms of all the Israeli tanks. This electrified the soldiers who soon joined in the singing as they headed for battle. It inspired a certain fearlessness. A tank crew member said they felt as if they were riding into celebration rather than to possible death. From that time on, the song became a classic and for years afterwards, no bar mitzvah or wedding celebration was complete without it.

Well, today is not a celebration and this is not a tank. But on this Yom Kippur we turn once again to Gesher Tzar Meod for a message for these High Holy Days. Last week on Rosh Hashana I spoke to you about fear, specifically, about fear of others. Today, I want to continue the theme with an emphasis on how Jewish tradition teaches we might overcome our fears.

All of us face fear. This past year, one of my boys repeatedly got great pleasure out of hiding behind doors, jumping out and scaring the dickens out of me. We’ll see how he feels when I dress up like a clown and scare the hibee-geebes out of him.

I am not sure that’s what Reb Nachman of Bratslav had in mind with this teaching about a gesher tzar meod, a narrow bridge (Lik. Mor. 1:48). Living in 18th Century Ukraine, Reb Nachman knew that the world was a scary place. He knew illness, poverty and anti-Semitism. He felt threatened by powerful social movements such as the Enlightenment and the vitriolic divisiveness of the Jewish community. But why describe the world like a bridge?

Earlier this year in China, a new bridge opened. Designed by an Israeli architect, it is the world’s longest glass-bottom bridge. Those who have the stomach can stand on it and look directly below, 590 feet. You couldn’t pay me to walk across it.

So the world is like this bridge. “It is not like a field on which we might rest, rather a bridge, the symbol of passage, of journeying” (D. Wolpe, Making Loss Matter). But if we’re afraid to cross, then we are stuck. We are paralyzed, unable to reach our destination, unable to progress, to explore, to grow. We are afraid to live.

So how should we respond? It’s not as simple as singing a song. And with all due respect to Reb Nachman, I don’t think it is possible to never fear, “lo lifached klal.” Rather, we must learn to navigate the narrow crossing despite our fears. I want to suggest three strategies: Name it. Frame it. Face it.
The first step to overcoming our fear is “name it.” There are different kinds of fear. If you are afraid of spiders, you are an arachnophobe. If you are afraid of leaving your house, you are an agoraphobe. If you are afraid of bacteria, you are a germophobe. If you are afraid of the High Holidays, you are a rabbi (D. Wechsler).

Reb Zalman Schachter Shlomi, z”l taught that there are three words for fear in Hebrew that describe three different kinds of fear. We find these three words in our High Holiday Amidah: “tein pachdekha al amkha birkatekha, v’eimatekha al kol mashebarata, v’yiraukha kol hamaasim.”

The first word is pachad, terror. These are real things about which worry is actually helpful. It’s helpful because it encourages us to be vigilant and prepared in guarding against dangers.

The second word is eimah, deep anxiety. Think of it as a conjunction of ayeh-where, mah-what? Where is it? What is it? I don’t know what the danger is, but I’m afraid. Whereas pachad is a danger that I know, eimah is fear of the unknown. Eimah can thus lead to great alarm, to overreaction, to anxiety that corrodes our hearts and minds.

The last fear is yirah. Yirah has the connotation of awe and respect. Picture a room. You are inside doing your thing. Then you realize that you are not alone. You are being watched. This causes caution. That is the consciousness implied in the name Yamim Noraim, not the “Days of Fear” but the “Days of Awe” when our behavior is scrutinized.

Three kinds of fear- pachad, aimah and yirah. Just naming and identifying my fear gives me a measure of control. For naming it and admitting it makes it real. It is no longer abstract. I know what I am facing and can determine a response.

Name it. Next, frame it. That is, I need to get some perspective. The numbers speak for themselves. We are 55 times more likely to be killed by our TVs than by terrorists- by our TVs falling on us, not by watching them! So statistics offers perspective as does history. I know that America is strong, that Israel is resilient. The Jewish people have faced the greatest fears and have survived. I know too that I have faced adversity and did not crumble. As I recall stories of the past, stories of bravery and determination, of successes and accomplishments, I gain the strength needed to face my fears. So history reminds me, inspire me, and plants within me just enough chutzpa to believe, “I too shall overcome.”

Admittedly, having perspective may not eliminate my fear. I can know statistics and history. I can know something up here (head) and still be afraid in here (heart). But framing my fear, seeing it within the large context of my strengths and my values is important because it allows me to separate fears from realistic concerns and thus respond rationally, maturely, and morally.

Name it. Frame it. Face it. This is the “take-the-bull-by-the horn-I’ve-got-no-choice” kind of attitude born out of sense of duty. The Israeli tank commanders didn’t have a choice. They had orders to follow. The new parent holding their infant worried because they have no idea what they are doing, has a job to do. The timid freshman walking down the corridors of a new High School can’t let fear get in the way; they have to go to school. The person fighting to live whose doctor says, “the only way is to have this surgery,” must push ahead. When I have a mission, I can push through despite my fear because I am committed to my calling.
So I’ve named my fear. I’ve framed my fear. I’ve faced my fear. “But rabbi, I am still afraid,” you say. The truth is, there are times when you are going to be scared. You might not eliminate your fear entirely. But you can manage it. And you do that best with… the “F-word.” That’s right, “F” your fear. No, no, not that “F-word.” Get your mind out of the gutter. I am talking about Family, friends and Faith. Clearly, you’ve been watching too much Access Hollywood!

Family and friends- now that probably sounds pretty obvious. We all know the song, “lean on me, when you’re not strong, and I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on.” The idea that we turn to others to help us face our fears is not original. But that doesn’t make it easy. It requires that we are vulnerable, that we let others in. I have seen people keep friends and family at a distance at the very hour when they most need support. They don’t want to appear weak or afraid. But family and friends, community and sometimes professional counselors can carry us across life’s bridges. I am not just talking about chicken soup, though that’s good too. They can help us name our fears, frame our fears, face our fears because they know us. They can motivate us. They can strengthen us. And they can also just say, “I know you are afraid. And that’s ok. Take my hand and let’s walk across together.”

Friends and family. And then there is faith. We read in the Talmud that when you are afraid, even if you don’t see anything but you just feel something, you should say the shema (Meg. 3a). It’s not that the shema is a magical incantation that zaps the evil in our midst or gives us an extra ounce of courage. Instead, in this teaching, Ravina, a 5th century Babylonian sage was inviting us to believe in something larger than ourselves, something bigger, more powerful than our fear.

When the Psalmist says, “lo ira ra. I fear no evil,” he is not saying that he has no fear because there is no such thing as evil, or because everything is part of God’s plan, or because everything always works out for the best. Nor does he say that he fears no evil because he is a good person and evil only happens to those who deserve it (H. Kushner, Conquering Fear).

No, there is evil in the world and he is exposed to it just like everyone else. But that doesn’t frighten him, “ki ata imadai because You are with me,” because he doesn’t have to face fears alone.

“Ki ata imada.” God is with me. For me, this is less as a statement of faith and more of a prayer for faith. You see, faith is not a one-time answer to all my questions, “why?” It is not a panacea, a resignation, a substitute for action. Faith is the humility to acknowledge that we are creature not Creator. Faith is the willingness to admit there is more in the universe than we know. Faith is the audacity to believe that while we are not as important as we think we are, we are never-the-less in Heschel’s words, “related to the Ultimate, the meaning of all meanings.” Faith is the courage to say, “we are but a passing shadow, a fleeting breeze… v’ata hu melekh el chai v’kayam, but You are the Ever-Present Living God.”

Earlier this year, I sat at the bedside of a woman and asked her how she was feeling emotionally. She didn’t hesitate to answer, “afraid,” she said. I thought to myself, “that makes sense for she was facing pain, facing the unknown, facing death.” But really what she feared, she went on to tell me, was separating from those she loved. She was afraid of being alone. And so we gathered around her beside and held her in our arms and held her in our hearts. And we prayed together, “God, I am afraid. Still my soul, calm my spirit. B’yado afkid ruchi. For I place my life in your hands. Adoni li v’lo ira, God, please be at my side; be with me and I will not fear.” And as we said those words, the woman found courage sensing she was not alone to cross life’s final bridge.

On Yom Kippur when we gather for Yizkor, we find comfort in memory as we recall the past. Our ability to picture the future, on the other hand, can make us afraid. Only humans have the capacity to visualize the future. We picture tomorrow and are anxious. We fear for our children not knowing what strange paths they will wander, the perils they will face. We fear for our wealth because we can picture a sudden loss that will jeopardize our family. We fear for our health because we can picture being overtaken by disease, disability and decline. And ultimately, we fear the future because we fear death (M. Steinberg, Being Jewish, p. 292).

I can’t lie to you. Just because I am standing up here talking about overcoming fear doesn’t mean I have got this all figured, that I am never afraid. But this I do know. Our ability to face our fears is a gift we give ourselves and others.

Fear can be a gift we give ourselves when it spurs us to action. We have a health scare and we begin to exercise and diet. We fear that our poor behavior will be discovered and we make positive changes. We fear the consequences of our choices and we chart a new course. We fear death so we repair relationships; we make the best use of our time and live each day fully. In these ways, fear can be a gift to us and a gift to others.

Jacob in the Torah was living in a foreign land with the evil Lavan. But he faced those challenges by drawing on what he had learned from his father, Isaac. Remember Isaac? Isaac had been bound on the altar with a knife to his throat. There is nothing more terrifying. From his father, Jacob learned that “the world demanded a certain gall, tenacity and cunning” (Rachel Farbiarz, AJWS). Reflecting on his life, Jacob understood, “had not the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac (Pachad Yitzchak) been with me,” (Gen 31.42), I would have failed in this foreign land. I would have nothing.” Pachad Yitzchak, Isaac’s fear was an inheritance, a gift that Isaac gave Jacob. It was the steel, strength, ability to face the challenges in his life. Isaac showed his son how to cross a bridge.

Kol haolam kulo gesher tzar meod. The world is a scary place, life can be frightening. To cross a bridge into the New Year, we must draw on the strength of our ancestors for the sake of our descendants. We must find the inner resolve to name our fears, frame our fears and face our fears.

Ki ata imada. And with family, friends and God at our side, we pray lo lifached klal, we will not be afraid to truly live. Amen.