LIVING WITH FEAR
Kol Nidre 5764
Several weeks ago my son, Max, sent me the following e-mail that offered suggestions of how to stay safe in the world today
1. Avoid riding in automobiles because they are responsible for 20% of all fatal accidents.
2. Do not stay home because 17% of all accidents occur in the home.
3. Avoid walking on streets or sidewalks because 14% of all accidents occur to pedestrians.
4. Avoid traveling by air, rail, or water because 16% of all accidents involve these forms of transportation.
5. Of the remaining 33%, 32% of all deaths occur in hospitals. Above all else, avoid hospitals.
You will be pleased to learn that only .001% of all deaths occur in worship services in synagogue, and these are usually related to previous physical disorders. The percentage of deaths during Torah study is even less. FOR SAFETY’S SAKE – Attend synagogue and read your Torah … IT COULD SAVE YOUR LIFE.
I begin the Kol Nidre sermon lightly because its subject is disturbing. These are the Days of Awe, the days of fear, and tonight’s teaching is about fear: how it affects us, how to live with it, and how we can learn from it. This is the time of year when we experience the revelation of the divine with us, and we know one thing: we can do more good together. Look at the safety we’re giving each other tonight! We can all rest easy knowing that we’re in the safest place we can be in a dangerous world, at HaMakom, the place where God dwells between us.
Tomorrow we’ll look at fear’s synonym, awe, and explore this joyful, humbling, and freeing fear that comes from being radically amazed by Ha Kol, everything. Radical amazement and fear are the yinyang paths to God.
The latest national polls tell us that Jews are not the only ones trembling through the Days of Awe. Despite increased security and the Patriot Act, most people aren’t feeling safer. In fact, our fears have even extended to worrying about the sacrifice of personal freedoms in exchange for survival. And that’s not all. Fearing for the well-being of our country, for Israel, the world itself, makes living today an emotional and spiritual challenge. Sylvia Boorstein describes reading the New York Times as as a spiritual challenge.
Fear, of course, is nothing new nor unique; it is part of the human condition. The Talmud describes the birth of fear: “The first time that Adam saw the sun go down and an ever-deepening gloom enfold creation, his mind was filled with terror. Then God took pity on him, and endowed him with the divine intuition to take two stones–the name of one was Darkness, and the name of the other Death–and rub them against each other, and to discover fire. Thereupon Adam exclaimed with grateful joy, “Blessed be the creator of light!”
Blessed be the One who transforms fear into creative fire. Blessed be the One who shows us the path from blindness to enlightenment. Blessed be the One who teaches us how to transform negative into positive. Everything can be turned for the sake of heaven, even terror. it can be downright dangerous to oneself and others. But appropriate fear is necessary, and just as we teach small children not to run in the street, our tradition teaches us how to direct our fear to save our spiritual lives. The book in your lap states this unequivocally in the High Holiday Amidah. On Page 426 you’ll find a special paragraph: (Hebrew).
The translation opposite softens the real meaning: “Adonai our God, imbue all Your creatures with reverence for You, and fill all that You have created with awe of You.” What it really says is, “Therefore, Adonai our God, set such fear on every human being and such dread on all Your creatures, that, in awe of You, they can worship You with humility. Then they will be one community formed to do Your will with a whole and peaceful heart.”
Clearly Judaism doesn’t think fear and trembling is a bad thing; it gets our attention enough to change the way we live. When we fear death, we live our lives with more urgency and appreciation. The Days of Awe remind us that a year has gone by, there is no time to waste! The Hasidim tell us to pray differently in this period by either whispering our prayers with a slightly bent posture or by the opposite, praying very loudly and gesturing wildly, like a drowning man thrashing about to keep his head above water. What he fears is spiritual death, and he is trembling for his immortal life.
We’d like to think that we don’t need a slap to be good. For many of us, the idea of fearing God is uncomfortable; we like the sweet vision of God who loves and forgives everyone. This God goes down sweet as milk and cookies, and we don’t understand why this isn’t enough. We don’t really need to fear God and follow a set of rules; we get the picture that it’s best to be fair and kind. I don’t want to sound like a Puritan preacher, but I think the world could do with a little more fear of God. God stands for justice and mercy, and God is all-powerful. Therefore, don’t mess with God by hurting any of this world’s creation. Fear that God will charge you for destroying the peace of the world by breaking God’s rules.
Stars don’t yearn to join another constellation, the sun doesn’t withhold light. God would like our obedience to be as dependable as the stars; that is what fearing God means. As sure as the laws of nature, so are the laws of God. Imagine a world in which human beings knew that their work was to be in partnership with God in repairing the world through lovingkindness. Imagine that in each face we recognized one made in the image of God. Imagine a world where we felt kin HaKol, everything. Imagine these ideas as immutable as the laws of nature.
If only we knew the laws of soul survival as well as the laws of physical world. By not fearing God, we have learned to fear each other. Without God’s laws we are dangerous, and we are even more dangerous when we are frightened. In 1933, on the eve of economic collapse with unemployment at 25 percent, FDR said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Misplaced fear paralyzes and controls. We look for Azazel, the scapegoat. The Nazis blamed the Jews, an easy mark for hatred and mistrust, for the economic and social collapse of post World War I Germany.
Judaism had been a target of fear for 3500 years, beginning with the Egyptian Pharaoh who, fearing that the Israelites would rise up against him, turned them into slaves and ordered their newborn sons killed. In the Fourth Century, Rome declared Christianity the holy religion of the Empire, thus giving God’s blessing to earthly power and strengthening the new religion by making it legal to kill anyone attempting to convert to Judaism. The Jews were a perfidious people, the children of Satan, scions of the killers of Christ. The Holocaust taught the world for a brief time how dangerous intolerance against a group is.
Mel Gibson has made a new film called “The Passion” that is about the last agonized hours of Jesus. Faithfully following the Gospels’ version of the crucifixion, which blames the Jews, Gibson claims that all he is trying to do is offer historical accuracy to the event. This may be so, but Jews have a long memory of what this version of the crucifixion has done to them. The Four Gospels made anti-Semitism a holy rite.
Between Mel Gibson and a world turned upside by 9/11 and looking for someone to blame, it’s natural for us to feel it’s us against the world. It’s never taken much for the world to remember why they don’t like Jews. Being despised isn’t all bad, however. Because we had the blessing of powerlessness for so long, we developed invisible strengths. We became a tender, intellectual, and spiritually passionate people, a people we wanted to tell our grandchildren about, a people who revered family, behaved fairly, loved kindness, and ran to help another. We may have been weak compared to other nations, but we were a proud, morally advantaged, people.
This is no longer true. Three years ago, Israel entered a ‘situation’ with the Palestinians that grows more terrifying daily. Suicide bombings, reprisals, endless sorrow. Despair, hatred, and fear grow on both sides. The world’s condemnation of Israel is unfair, without doubt, and yet too much of what they say is true. Because we are no longer looked at as victim or moral model, being Jewish is a little more risky than it used to be. Look at the security every synagogue in the world needs today.
Whether or not one agrees with Israeli leadership, no one can deny the effect of fear upon Israel. Fear explains holding the occupied territories even though we know that in ten years the Jewish population of Israel will be a minority. It explains how Israel, calling for Arafat’s removal, turned him into a martyred hero. And fear tragically explains how all of us braced ourselves for another suicide bombing after Israel announced plans to expand its borders and build more houses in the settlements.
How can these decisions make us feel safer when they are both ineffective and inhumane? Our tradition teaches that God loves the Jewish people and God loves peace. Do we think that God will abandon us to be destroyed by other nations? Surely there must be a place for us to stand where we are neither victims nor bullies. We are a people who pray that one day all will live in peace, because we have to. If we feared God more than the Palestinians, we’d do all we could to make peace.
Psalm 27 tells us explicitly that armies will surround us, but we will not fear. At the end we say, “Teach me your way, Adonai; lead me on a straight path. Deliver me not to the will of my enemies. Hope in God.” The will of my enemy is to have me forget who I am and what I stand for.
Once we were proud of Israel not so much for its David beats Goliath image but for its goodness. Israel is fighting for its life and I unequivocally support the sovereignty of the state of Israel. I remember its birth and I remember its dream; I am not alone. 80 percent of Israeli Jews believe that we have to dismantle the settlements and build a wall excluding the settlements.
JB Soloveitchik wrote, “Evil is the will to dominate.” Maybe the will to dominate comes from a deep fear of annihilation. Let us fear God enough to know that we have the capacity and choice to destroy ourselves individually and collectively. At this time of year we are commanded to choose life. Let’s have enough holy fear not to allow our earthly fears to interfere with the paths to peace between nations or between individuals.
May God grant us the courage to let go of destructive fear and the faith to cleanse our hearts by behaving with brave love. May our enemies soon become our friends.