Religious Life


Rabbi Alexander Davis

October 2, 2016 / Rosh Hashanah 5777

Simon had a problem. In fact, he had the problem for so long that it began to worry him to death. Finally, he decided to do something about it. So he went to see Dr Bloom, his local psychiatrist.

“Oy, doctor, have I got a problem,” said Simon. “Every night, when I get into my bed, I think there’s a crazy person under it ready to kill me. Please help me.”

“Don’t worry, Simon,” said Dr Bloom, “I can cure you of your fears, but it will not happen overnight.”

“So how long will it take, doctor?” asked Simon.

“Well,” replied Dr Bloom, “come to me twice a week for three months.”

“And how much do you charge?” asked Simon.

“$500 per session,” replied Dr Bloom.

“But that will cost me $12000,” said Simon. “I’m gonna to have to think about it.”

Many months later, Simon met Dr Bloom on the street. “So why didn’t you let me cure you of your fears?” asked Dr Bloom.

“Well,” replied Simon, “As I told you then, your fees were really too high for me. Besides, my rabbi cured me for free.”

“How?” asked Dr Bloom.

“Easy,” replied Simon, “he told me to cut the legs off my bed. It’s now so low that nobody can possible get under it.

Friends, I wish I had a simple solution to our fears because when I look out, I see a world beset with fear. So I’d like to talk about fear. And this is the perfect time. After all, these are the Yamim Noraim. We call them the Days of Awe but maybe a better translation is “Days of Fear.” I know it sounds like the title of the new Star War’s movie. But these days, when our lives are judged, are scary indeed.

So let’s begin.

When we were kids, we were teased, “scaredy cat, scaredy cat.” We protested. But the truth is, deep down, we were scared. Then, we grew up and started going to horror movies and haunted houses. We enjoyed this kind of fear because we knew it was pretend and yet it still gave us a thrill. This past year, it didn’t take much to remind us that real fear is not fun: An office in San Bernadino, a night club in Orlando, a boardwalk in Niece, a café in Tel Aviv and on and on. We were scared because the attacks were so close, so random and because we could see ourselves in them.

And it is not just large scale attacks that scared us. We were afraid of losing our health, losing our jobs, losing our marriages. We worried about rising crime, rising temperatures, rising antisemitism. We are afraid for our children, afraid for our nation and afraid for our world.

Wow. What an uplifting sermon. It’s like that old joke about the Jewish telegram that says, “Start worrying now, details to follow.”

There is good reason to fear. The threats are real. But there is also a need to control our fear. For once fear takes root, it has a hold on us, often with dangerous consequences. In the words of the great sage, Yoda: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” He’s right. Fear sows seeds of helplessness; it feeds intolerance. It distorts our ability to think clearly and clouds our judgment. We must get a grip on our fear to build a healthy society. And so on these High Holy Days we ask, “How can we control our fears? Can we develop healthy fears that guide us? Can we make our fears moral? (Abe Mezrich). I believe that Jewish tradition can show us how. So sit back for the next six hours and let me explain.

These are big questions and important questions. Since I have so much to say and since I want to get you home for a yontif lunch at a reasonable hour, I am going to give half the sermon now and continue it next week on Yom Kippur. That way you’ll be sure to come back. And it’ll give me time to hopefully figure out some good answers. I am also giving you an assignment. As you share lunch or a relaxing fall afternoon, discuss your own fears: what you fear, why you fear and how you cope with fear. I know it is not an easy conversation. But to jump ahead to next week, I think part of controlling our fears is naming our fears.

For now, I want to focus on one specific kind of fear, a fear I fear that has been planted within us and that is growing amongst us- the fear of the other. Who are the others that you fear? Muslims, Mexicans, transgender, blacks, black hats, the Packers? Why exactly do we fear the other? I know, I know. They don’t look like us; they don’t talk like us, they don’t act like us. And I know that some of them do horrible things. But why does otherness per se arouse fear as opposed to say, intrigue?

Renowned author Parker Palmer is best known for his work on education. But I find his insight into the psychology of fear helpful. Parker describes four ways in which encountering the other generates fear. First, he says, it raises the possibility that ours is not the only truth. It is affirming and reassuring to live in a univocal universe in which every social media post, every radio program, and every dinner conversation communicates what I already believe is right and true. To encounter the other challenges my truth.

Next, we fear that encountering differing truths will lead to conflict like the conflict between a volatile Republican against his political rival. I am speaking of course about Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. In 1804, their long standing political differences, led to a slight at a dinner party that was leaked by the WikiLeaks of the day. And suddenly, a duel in words over ideas became a real duel that left Hamilton dead and Burr charged with murder. Fear sometimes leads to violence because it is easier to feel angry than fearful or vulnerable.

Third, encountering the other, Palmer explains, threatens our own sense of self. We feel like the attack on our opinions represents an attack on the core of who we are.

Finally, the fourth level is most intriguing. What we really fear when we encounter the others is that it will change us. We know this from experience. When I was in college, I got a Euro rail pass. And as I explored different countries and cultures, I expanded my horizons and I grew. But I was in control. It was on my terms. When others encounter me and force me to change, now that is unsettling. I feel a loss of identity, a loss of my place. (Eilberg, From Enemy to Friend, p. 135).

As Jews, we know about fear of others. We have been victimized as outsiders for most of our history. But we’ve known the other side as well, as we see in our Torah reading this morning.

Sarah fears Hagar. In fact, neither she nor Abraham miss an opportunity to make Hagar the other. They never refer to Hagar by name. They don’t speak directly to her. She remains, “Hagar, the Egyptian” or “Hagar the slave girl.” The only one who does speak to her is God who calls to her saying, “What troubles you Hagar? Do not fear al tiri.”

We could leave it at that. Sarah feels threatened by a foreigner. But understand the subplot. Hagar is an Egyptian. She is described as a slave. She is oppressed and sent out into the desert. Sound familiar? This story parallels the story of the Israelite slaves. Biblical scholar, Tikva Frimer Kensky explains, “The story of Sarah and Hagar is not a story of the conflict between “us” and “other,” but between “us” and “another us” (Talking about Genesis: A Resource Guide, PBS, p. 95).

This idea that the fear of the other is the fear of “another us” takes us to the heart of these Yamim Noraim. On these days, we are to look inside and reflect on our lives. And it is hard. For when we look inside, we see another us, one who has wronged, failed, fallen. And we are scared to face that other. We are scared of facing our faults, of admitting we were wrong, of saying those two simple words: “I’m sorry,” or “You’re forgiven.” But here is the consolation. That fear is the sign that we are human and knowing that, helps us overcome our fear.

Remember the story of Adam in the Garden? Adam ate the forbidden fruit. And God asked, “Adam, where are you.” Adam didn’t say, “You-hu, I am over here.” The very first words the first human says to God are, “I was afraid vaira. I was afraid because I was naked.” The point is not that Adam wasn’t wearing any clothes. It is that he felt naked of merit, of worth. He looked at himself and didn’t like what he saw. And in a way, the rest of the Torah is a response to that fear. No not surprisingly, the most common phrase in the Torah appearing 80 times is, “al tira” God says, do not fear.”

Animals fear instinctively. The cat fears the dog; the mouse fears the cat. But animals aren’t worried about being naked of merit. They don’t worry about mistakes. They don’t fret over the past or fear the future. They don’t fear failure. But we do. And that’s ok because our fear makes us human.

Picture yourself embracing the other. They are scary. You acknowledge your discomfort. And yet you don’t flee. Picture yourself facing your past, facing the truth. You want to run away. But you don’t. Just like you can control your appetite, you can control your fear. You can learn to live with it. That’s what makes us human.

The story is told about a group of Jewish prisoners living in the hell of a Nazi concentration camp. It was the first night of Chanukkah and celebrations were forbidden if not impossible. But one of the men had saved a morsel of bread. He dipped it in the fat in his plate, shaped it like a lamp, made the berakhah and lit it. His surprised son asked, “Father, you just set fire to food, and we have so very little. Aren’t you afraid? What if you had gotten caught?” The father answered, “My son, people can live an entire week without food, people can live with fear. But they will not survive one day without hope.”

In the face of fear, the father expressed faith. Amidst the darkness of evil, he found reassurance in ritual. In a time of terror, he summoned courage and refused to be intimidated. In an hour of hopelessness, he brought hope.

Friends, these High Holy Days stand at the intersection of fear and hope. We find that in the Psalm special for this season that begins in fear and ends in hope. Psalm 27 begins, “the Lord is my light and salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life of what shall I be afraid? Though armies be arrayed against me, I have no fear.”

Only someone who is really afraid has to repeat himself three times. The author is afraid. But he is working to master his fears, to live in spite of them. And he tells us how. Adonai uri, God is my light.

First, that light stands for knowledge. We need to know the other. We need to understand their beliefs and values and customs; we need to appreciate their fears and their struggles. Until we do, they will always remain separate, strange, scary. That same is true for us. We need to shine an internal light on our lives to understand who we are and what we fear. The light of knowledge gives us strength to control our fears.

Next, that light stands for love. And we sense it knowing that we don’t have to face our fears alone. You feel it when your spouse, your friend, your doctor, your sponsor embrace you and say, “You can do this. You are strong. I am here for you.” The light of love gives us courage.

And finally, the light stands for faith. It is not believing that all stories have a happy ending. Rather it is the stubborn conviction that we are strong enough to survive misfortune, we are powerful enough to turn rejection into resilience, we are brave enough to transform failure into experience, despair into devotion. We can build a better world and fulfill the dream of a prophet whose vision of tomorrow responds to Adam’s original fear. The prophet Micah said, “each person shall sit in their garden, under a vine, under a fig tree and not be afraid.”

The light of knowledge, love, faith- these give us hope.
And so as 5777 dawns, we pray: “When I worry give me insight. When I feel alone, show me You are near. When I fear, give me faith. When I despair, teach me hope. As the Psalmist says, “Adonai uri… chazak v’ametz libekh v’kavel el Adonai. Adonai is that light. Be strong, full of courage. And hope in Adonai.” Amen.
Passages from Harold Kushner’s Conquering Fear inspired parts of this d’var Torah.