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Yom Kippur - 2006 / 5767

09/01/2006 09:02:23 PM


Rabbi Carey Brown

The signs are everywhere. In restaurants, in grocery stores… “We have no spinach.” Who could have imagined a month ago that this small leafy green would pack such a punch to the way in which we eat? Suddenly, that which we thought was good for us – spinach, the epitome of health food, the vegetable we were forced to eat to grow big and strong! – might make us sick. It is sometimes scary living in this world.
A few days ago the TSA, the Transportation Security Administration, announced a relaxation on bringing liquids on airplanes. Liquids, gels, Code Orange, Code Red…it is hard to keep it all straight. Anyone who has passed through airport security in the past few months can recall the fear in the eyes of passengers required to leave their potentially dangerous bottles of fruit juice, hand lotion, and lip-gloss at security checkpoints. If airline travel has truly reached this point, it is perfectly understandable why passengers would be fearful of the flight ahead. Spinach, airline security: it is sometimes scary living in this world.

Five years after the events of 9/11 we are very much a country in fear, living in a world of fear. A great deal has been made politically of the culture of fear in which we live today. Regardless of our opinions on the source of that culture of fear, the reality is that as Americans, fear is all around us.

Fear is a very powerful thing. Fear paralyzes us; it traps us in a lifestyle, it confines us to a path in life that we don’t want but can’t move from. Fear is a prison of the spirit; an enslavement of the mind.

Some of us fear spiders, I fear heights, others, flying, terrorism, disease, or dying. We fear isolation, we fear conflict, we fear love, and we fear the end of love. We fear loneliness; we are scared of being lost in the crowd. We fear change and we worry that things will never change. We fear the unknown, we fear that which we know to be true, we fear failure and we fear success.

Some say that people hold on to fear, but in truth it is fear that holds on to us; in a relentless, unflinching grasp. It is fear that enslaves the essence of our very being, confines us to an endless struggle with ourselves. An infinite loop of; Can I? No I can’t! But I have to! But I am scared! But you must! But I’m afraid!

Many of you in this sanctuary have stood up to and faced down your fears, you have done it from hospital beds and gravesides, in front of your children, your spouse, your boss, your rabbi; every person has a fear they have confronted and triumphed over. Yet even still, I have never in my life met a fearless person. And we are not alone, as far back as the very beginning of the world; the story of humanity is a story of our continuing struggle with fear. Eve feared the snake, Cain feared Able, Noah feared God. The story of our people, the story of each person is really the story of confronting fear time and again each day over a lifetime.

The difficult thing about fear is that it is nearly impossible to avoid. I can’t control what scares me in the moment. Fear is a natural emotional reaction, one that might even be a little bit good for us, a way to deal with the reality of the world in which we live. Fear can be healthy. The danger comes when fear takes over, when it dictates our lives, when it becomes unhealthy. The media certainly does not help in this department. After all, fear brings good ratings. But a cycle of fear does not make for a healthy society.
Where can we turn, then, to try to find a shelter from the overwhelming fear that threatens to take control of our lives? Not surprisingly, fear does have a place within our Jewish tradition. Judaism also distinguishes between healthy fear and fear that traps us and keeps us down. Our tradition teaches us that the only good kind of fear is yirat hashem – the fear of God. But are we really supposed to fear God in the same way that we fear infectious diseases, terrorism on airplanes, and failure?

A wonderful story from the Jerusalem Talmud , the lesser known version of the Talmud than its Babylonian brother, helps us understand what it means to fear God. Rabbi Samuel traveled to Rome. Rome, the center of the ancient world, the epicenter of political power, military strength, and commerce of its time. While Rabbi Samuel was there, the queen lost a precious bracelet and Rabbi Samuel chanced upon it. This was not just any bracelet, for it belonged to the queen of Rome, the most powerful queen in the entire world.

Meanwhile, a crier went around the kingdom announcing: ‘Whoever brings back the queen’s bracelet within thirty days will receive a great reward. But, if the bracelet is found on him after the thirty days, his head will be cut off!’

Rabbi Samuel did not return the bracelet within the thirty days, but on the 31st day brought it back to the queen. She asked him, ‘Were you not in the kingdom?’ He replied, ‘Yes.’ ‘So did you not hear the proclamation?’ He answered: ‘Yes, I did.’ She asked: ‘What did the crier say?’ He told her the crier’s words. So she asked: ‘Then why did you not return it within the thirty days?’ He replied: ‘So that you would not say that I feared you, but I returned it because I feared God.’ At which she proclaimed: ‘Blessed be the God of the Jews!’

Rabbi Samuel’s fear of God prompted him to an act of consciousness. His actions illustrate a consciousness of the Divine in others – he saw the divinity reflected in the queen, not because of her status, but because of her humanity. Rabbi Samuel teaches us to act justly no matter whom we face in life and what fearful situation might await us.
The word for fear in Hebrew is yirah, and as I mentioned earlier, Jewish fear is almost always connected to the “fear of God,” yirat HaShem. But there is another way of translating the word “yirah” – as awe; awe of God and the wonders in the world.
When we see that yirah is fear connected with awe, we see that it is an entirely different kind of fear all together. Yirah is the feeling you get that makes you tremble when you look up into the night sky and sense the expanse of the universe and how small we are in comparison. Yirah is what make our knees shake when we are up close to a Torah scroll and realize the ancient weight of its words. Yirah is the humility that a new parent feels when a newborn baby is placed in their arms for the very first time.
Yirah is different than simply feeling scared. The Hebrew language is beautiful in making that distinction. Being scared, feeling frightened is called pachad. Pachad is walking in a poorly lit alley late at night. Pachad is feeling scared that something might happen to you on an airplane. Pachad is getting lost in unfamiliar territory.
This Yom Kippur, we need to focus less on pachad, fright, and bring ourselves more closely into the realm of yirah – the realm of awe. When we understand yirah as “awe,” we deepen our relationship with God. We allow ourselves an opportunity to find holiness in the varied situations in our lives. Our challenge is to move beyond our scared moments and commit to standing before God in awe. When we open our eyes and hearts to experience the great miracles that take place in the universe we are able to disconnect from fright and connect to something bigger! This is what religion is all about. Awakening to connect with something bigger than ourselves.

This is not easy work. Many of us know what it is to feel stifled by fright. I myself have sensed what it is like to feel trapped by pachad, by an unwavering sense of worry and anxiety. My first year of Rabbinical school in Jerusalem happened to have been the year the second Intifada began in Israel. Daily life was accompanied by a sense of nervousness. My roommates, Deborah, Marla, and I went about our lives with caution, albeit with great excitement about the experience we were having living in Israel.

Deborah and I left to continue our studies in the US and Marla remained to pursue a masters program of Jewish Education in Jerusalem. The Intifada grew more intense and pachad filled the streets of Israel. Marla was very aware of the tension between pachad and yirah during this time. On the one hand, she wrote, “Each morning when I leave my apartment building, I have an important question to contemplate: Should I turn left or should I turn right? This question may seem inconsequential, but the events of the past few months in Israel have led me to believe that each small decision I make-- which route to walk to school, whether to go out to dinner--may have life-threatening consequences.” On the other hand, Marla was fond of saying, “Life here is magical.” She wrote, “The exhilaration of Torah and Talmud study, close friendships and a lively community far outweigh the fears. Stimulation abounds in Jerusalem—and I need only go to the supermarket to be struck once again by how lucky I am to live here. There is no other place in the world where I would rather be right now.”

How tragic it is then that Marla’s life was cut short when she was killed by a bomb placed by Hamas in the cafeteria of the Hebrew University in July of 2002. As you can imagine, it was a difficult time for all of us who counted ourselves among Marla’s large circle of friends.

When I returned to Jerusalem the following summer, the political situation was much calmer, yet I was overwhelmed by a sense of pachad – of fright – that I had never felt before living in Israel. A bus passed me by on the street – I was scared, I felt pachad. A trip up to Mt. Scopus, to the Hebrew University campus with some of the students I was teaching – pachad. A night on the town with friends… the pachad wouldn’t go away.

And then I began to focus on Marla’s words: “Life here is magical.” She was right. The light that glistens off of the Jerusalem stone at dusk and makes the city appear aglow truly is magical. I took in its radiance and was in awe. The siren’s wail marking the start of Shabbat made the hair on my arms stand on end as I stood in yirah, in trembling awe, as the entire city fell into step with the sanctification of time that is the Sabbath. The little children heading off to Gan, to preschool, chatted away with their mothers and fathers in Hebrew – shivers ran down my spine. Even if being in Israel might always make me feel a little bit more nervous, I realized that I never wanted to allow my yirah to be overcome by pachad again.

A famous statement was made by a Hassidic rabbi about overcoming pachad. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav tells us, “Kol HaOlam kulo gesher tzar m’od, v’ha-ikar lo l’fached c’lal – All the world is but a narrow bridge and the most important thing is not to be completely afraid.”

The most important word in that sentace is “c’lal” – “completely.” He tells us not to be consumed by fear. Fear itself is okay and natural. But the ikar, the most important thing is lo l’fached c’lal – not to be completely afraid. Do not let fear keep you from living, from crossing that bridge.

Rabbi Nachman himself was certainly no stranger to fear. When Reb Nachman made his observation about the world being a narrow bridge he himself had just endured a fearful and harrowing experience. He wanted to travel to the land of Israel, a journey that in the medieval age in which he lived was fraught with peril and hardship. Thus at great personal risk he made the journey to Israel. It was a harrowing trip, it cost him his life’s fortune, he was held hostage, his boat was nearly swamped at sea not once but twice. But in the end he made it.

Nachman teaches through his own example that the product of a courageous act is not only the conquering of fear, but the perspective of renewed hope which comes when we free up our souls from those things that so constrict and constrain the very essence our very being. When we confront and subdue our fears, we give ourselves the freedom and the ability to dream again. Anything becomes possible. The whole world may indeed be a very narrow bridge, but when curiosity and courage triumph over fear, hope springs eternal and we desire only to keep walking, moving forward.
As we find ourselves on the precipice of a new year, in the moment when we are perhaps most open to changing our behavior, let us find a way to avoid feeling trapped by fear and instead commit to stand in the presence of God in humility and awe.
These are the days of awe, of yirah – the yamim noraim, in which we seek an awareness of the humble nature of our origins and our destination. This Yom Kippur, may we dedicate ourselves to living a life filled with yirah, a life filled with reverence and awe.

May it be so – ken yehi ratzon.

Sat, January 16 2021 3 Sh'vat 5781