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Yom Kippur 2018/5779

10/04/2018 10:06:41 AM


Rabbi Howard L. Jaffe

Like many of us, when I was a child, I had a lot of questions about the afterlife. The religious school teachers in my Orthodox synagogue were not very helpful. They mostly avoided the topic, and if one of us had enough temerity to press the question, they were pretty evasive. The most specific answer I can recall is that there is such a thing as a world to come, Olam Haba, when everything will be perfect, and which we will experience when the Messiah arrives. Of course, that led to lots of questions about when the Messiah would arrive, who or what the Messiah was, and what happens to us in the meantime. Was there such a thing as heaven and hell? Well, no… Well, yes, heaven exists, of course, but it is not a place you go where you enter gates because you have lived a good life. What is it, then? And what about hell?

We never got a particularly satisfying answer to any of those questions.

And for the past 35 years, more if you count the years I was in rabbinical school, I have, with some regularity, been asked the same questions by children and adults alike.

And I keep trying to come up with an answer that is satisfying, for myself as well as for those who ask.

And while I am not sure I have yet been or ever will be successful, I would like to think that my response is at least a little a bit more forthcoming.

If you and I have had that conversation, I have probably begun my response by saying something along the lines of how there is no clear answer in Jewish tradition, although there are certain consistent strains of thought. Like my teachers in religious school, I probably spoke of the idea of Olam Haba, a world to come, in which the world is functioning at the highest possible level.

And every time I have that conversation, at some point, I make sure to say that we simply do not, and cannot know. What we can do, and what Judaism strives to do, is respond to the question by saying that Judaism teaches us values by which to live. We ought to live as if the more righteous we are, the more quickly we will, in whatever next life there may be, get to the ultimate place that awaits - but only because we have earned it, because we did what was right because it was right, and not because we were motivated by reward or punishment, by fear of what might happen to us if we are not righteous.

I find that the story that best illustrates the Jewish approach to the afterlife and any reward that might be awaiting us is about a Hasidic Jew who approached his rebbe after having gone to the circus. Rebbe, he said, I went to the circus last night and I saw a tightrope walker. Rebbe, he asked, tell me, what was he thinking when he walked across the tight rope? The rebbe paused for a few moments, stroked his beard, and said, “I cannot tell you for sure what he was thinking. I can, tell you for sure, what he was not thinking. He was not thinking about what he was getting paid for what he was doing, for if he was, he would surely have fallen off.”

“He was not thinking about what he was getting paid for what he was doing, for if he was, he would surely have fallen off.”

We cannot know what might be in store for us on the other side, but we know that if there is some kind of reward, it will come to us not because we were focused on receiving it, but because we lived in a way that we deserved it.

The Talmud describes it this way: do not serve God in the way that a servant who serves his master with the expectation of a reward, but as a servant who loves his master and wants to please him.

The rabbis go on to explain that the one who has the reward in mind will be focused on the reward, and not on the needs of his master, and so, will not be able to meet his master’s needs.

The servant who wants to please his master and is focused on that task will earn the reward because he will have done that which is worthy of reward.

“He was not thinking about what he was getting paid for what he was doing, for if he was, he would surely have fallen off.”


We cannot successfully live life thinking about whatever reward may be waiting for us.

And we have to imagine that the tightrope walker was not thinking about falling off, either. Of course, he had to know it was a possibility, but he had to be fearless.

So do we.

Because as great a motivator as reward is, we know too well what fear can do to us.

Many of us are familiar with the song, Gesher Tzar meod, A Very Narrow Bridge, the words of the great Hasidic master, Nachman of Bratzlav. “Kol ha-olam kulo, gesher tzar meod, gesher tzar meod…” The whole world is a very narrow bridge… And the main thing… the main thing… is not to be afraid.”

The main thing is not to be afraid.

That is, of course, easier said than done.

Fear is powerful.

It is also a word that we are hearing a lot these days.

Bob Woodward tells us that he chose that title for his book about the current administration based on then-candidate Trump’s statement that “Real power is, I don't even want to use the word, fear.”

He might be right.

Properly channeled fear, individual or societal, is powerful.

But so are hope and faith.

And they are the only check on the power of fear.

The Torah brings us too many examples of the consequences of acting out of fear, as well as examples of hope and faith. In fact, there are two different Hebrew words that are usually translated as fear, yira and pachad. Yira is the kind of fear related to faith. It is the kind of fear that is more about awe, represented by many, including Abraham, and of course, Moses. Pachad is the kind of fear related to fright, and is understandably sometimes represented by Isaac, who found himself tied up on and altar, and by Pharaoh, who was perhaps the epitome of one who acted out of fright.

When Pharaoh became concerned that the Israelites, who never acted in any way that threatened him, the Egyptians, or their way of life, started to grow in number, he issued his famous decree. “And he said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.”

The first recorded instance of action against a perceived fifth column. We had better not take any chances with them, because they may become a problem.

Similar fear led to one of the darkest hours in history of this country. In 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the same president who stands out for all that he did to get us through that time, signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the relocation of Japanese Americans, the majority of them US citizens, to internment camps. The premise for doing so was, of course, faulty, but fear is easily stoked by any supporting information, even if it is completely false. Lt. General John L. DeWitt, leader of the Western Defense Command, was concerned about a repeat of Pearl Harbor, and to argue his case, DeWitt prepared a report filled with known falsehoods, such as examples of sabotage that were later revealed to be the result of cattle damaging power lines.

In all, 117,000 people were relocated, because of fear of what they might do. Anyone who was at least 1/16th Japanese was evacuated – even Hitler only used ¼ -  including 17,000 children under the age of 10, as well as several thousand elderly and handicapped. All were initially sent to relocation centers, which were located in remote areas, often reconfigured fairgrounds and racetracks featuring buildings not meant for human habitation, like horse stalls or cow sheds, that had been converted for that purpose. In Portland, Oregon, for example, 3,000 people stayed in a livestock pavilion at the Pacific International Livestock Exposition Facilities. In Santa Anita, a short distance from Los Angeles, 8500 people were placed in stables. People were given six days notice to dispose of their belongings other than what they could carry. That is better, I suppose, than what was happening on the other side of the Atlantic. But is that a standard we even want to think about?

And is it not painfully ironic that driven by fear, a president remembered for so much good and such important leadership, who is so well-known for the words, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” acted so horribly exactly out of fear?

We are seeing just how powerful fear can be once again. On top of all of the nationalist, anti-immigrant behavior that has become all too mainstream, we have seen our own government, once again, abuse its power as a reaction to fear. While it has faded from the news in recent weeks, we watched in horror as we saw children, separated from their parents, placed in warehouses behind chain-link fences, once again, human beings treated like animals by our own government. And as we know, there are still hundreds of children in federal custody, separated from their parents, with little assurance that they will be reunited anytime soon, if at all.

We need a reasonable and sane immigration policy. I am not advocating for open borders, or for amnesty for all undocumented immigrants. I cannot understand, however, under what conditions these kinds of behaviors are acceptable. We can ask ourselves a simple question: is this more the behavior of Moses, or of Pharaoh? Is this yira or pachad?

Pachad has its place. It keeps us from potentially dangerous, even life-threatening situations. Pachad keeps us from acting in ways that hurt others and ourselves unnecessarily. Fear should not be ignored. But we cannot allow fear to take over completely. If we did, we would never accomplish anything in life. “The whole world is a narrow bridge,” Reb Nachman reminds us. Or perhaps even a tightrope  If fear overtakes, we will never make it across.

Fear is, of course, biological, an emotion – and does not have to control or overtake us. What makes us human, what distinguishes us from animals is our capacity to control our emotions, and not the other way around.  But fear is powerful, touching us at our core, at times threatening our very sense of survival, and if unchecked, allows our darker impulses to win out and corrodes our own sense of self.

Do you remember the famous story in the Torah of the 12 spies, really scouts, that Moses sent to bring back report on the land of Israel, what kind of land it was, how much of a challenge it would be to settle?

You may recall that only two of the scouts, Caleb and Joshua, brought back an honest assessment, that the land was rich and fertile, and that settling it would not be easy, but that it could be done. The other 10, however, said, that the people were like  giants and that, “we seemed like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.”

“We seemed like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.”

Unchecked fear not only diminishes and disempowers us, it causes us to lose sight of who we are and replaces our sense of self with what we imagine is the perception of those who we think might hurt us.

And unchecked fear corrodes our humanity, as it hardens our hearts.

Four years ago, I shared stories of what it was like to be in Israel during an unprecedented, and thankfully, not since repeated time of missile attacks from Gaza. I recently learned about an experience during that time of one of my colleagues, Rabbi Shoshana Conover, who was in Israel studying in the same program that I was. She was there with her husband and young children, who had grown close with the other kids their age in the building where they were staying. She writes about the all-too-familiar trek to the basement shelter every time the alarm went off signaling an incoming missile.

After a particularly challenging day, she writes:

“After I put my sons to bed that evening, I heard a knock at the door. One of my friends, another mom with children our sons’ ages, came in carrying a child-sized backpack.

“Feel this,” she said.

I picked up the child-sized back pack and it felt like it was at least five pounds.

“And look.”

She unzipped the pack’s top compartment. It was filled with rusty nails. She unzipped the main pocket-large rocks. In the back pocket- shards of glass.

Her son was scared. He was afraid that a missile would land on the roof and kill him or people in his family. He gathered the weapons he could find to protect himself and them.

His mother was scared as well… Her fear was just as great, yet less immediate. Her fear was this:

She was afraid that her son’s fear of missiles

would harden into anger against all the people in Gaza

which would ossify into hatred of all Arabs.”

Fear too easily gives way to hate.

The whole world is a narrow bridge… And the main thing… the main thing… is not to be afraid.”


But it actually turns out that is not exactly what Reb Nachman said.

The song was written, and immediately popularized, during the Yom Kippur war, which broke out 45 years ago today. Rabbi Baruch Chait, who composed the song, consciously changed the words to give greater hope and faith, to give strength in the face of fear to the soldiers who were experiencing a military challenge unlike any Israel had ever faced. It caught on quickly. In today’s language, we would say it went viral. “The whole world is a narrow bridge… And the main thing… is not to be afraid.”

For many, it worked. It gave them the strength and the faith they needed to keep on in what was a tremendous test of their fortitude.

But the actual words that Reb Nachman wrote were somewhat different. The biggest difference is in the form of the word “pachad”, the word fear.

He actually wrote,

“Know that…. A person must pass over a very, very narrow bridge.

And the fundamental principle is not to make oneself full of fear.”

V’ha-klal v’ha-ikar, Shelo yitpacheid

It is reflexive, yitpacheid. Make oneself full of fear.

The fundamental principle is not to make oneself full of fear.

Both versions work. Each has their place. When it feels that the whole world is a narrow place, then yes, the fundamental principle is not to be afraid.

But the world is not always a narrow place. And it does not always have to feel like one. When it does happen that we find ourselves having to cross a narrow bridge, the fundamental principle is not to allow fear to go unchecked, not to make ourselves full of fear.

Or sometimes we may just choose to cross a narrow bridge. Or a tightrope.

You are likely familiar with the family of acrobatic daredevils who call themselves the flying Wallendas. And you may recall how, back in June 2012, Nik Wallenda crossed a particularly narrow bridge… In fact, it was an actual tight rope, a 1500 foot, 2 inch diameter steel cable stretched across Niagara Falls.


To do so, he had to secure permission from both U.S. and Canadian authorities. On the Canadian side, giving Wallenda the go-ahead meant granting a one-time exemption on a 128-year ban on stunts. 500,000 people watched live, and more than 13 million watched on television.

When he stepped into Canada, barely 25 minutes after he started, after greeting his wife and family, Wallenda was approached by a customs agent, who asked him for his passport, which he presented, and asked if he was bringing anything into the country.

"No, I'm not carrying anything over. I promise," he said.

"What is the purpose of your trip, sir?" the agent asked.

"To inspire people around the world," Wallenda said.

Apparently, he did.

And I am guessing that we all know what he was not thinking about as he made his way across.

As we continue through this holiest day of the year, may we be inspired to face our fears, and to remember when it feels as if the entire world is a narrow bridge, not to be afraid… And when we have to cross a narrow bridge, we will remember not to fill ourselves with fear.

And at the very end, when we have made it across safely… we may just find there is a reward waiting for us.

 And at the very least, we can know that just by making it across as fearlessly as possible, we inspired the people whose lives we touched.

G’mar chatimah tovah

Tue, June 6 2023 17 Sivan 5783