What’s to Fear?

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5775

Once Zusya prayed to God: “Lord, I love you so much, but I do not fear you enough! Lord, I love you so much, but I do not fear you enough! Let me stand in awe of you like your angels, who are penetrated by your awe-inspiring name.” And God heard his prayer, and God’s name penetrated the heart of Zusya as it does those of the angels. But Zusya crawled under the bed like a little dog, and animal fear shook him until he howled: “Lord, let me love you like Zusya again!” And God heard him this time also.[1]

Zusya wanted to understand something more, he was afraid that he wasn’t enough. That he wasn’t doing enough, and so his prayer that he offered out of fear led to a result that made him even more afraid. It inspired in him animal fear. A fear beyond rational thought, a fear that left him shaking and howling and it inspired him to offer a prayer to go backwards to what he was before, before he’d understood that he had asked for too much.

Fear can motivate us in a lot of ways, it can cause us to be prepared for the thing we fear. This would be the best outcome of fear, but it can also cause us to become stuck, unable to move ahead forward and face what scares. Instead we hide. There is a song Kol Ha’olam Kulo, the words come from Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav and it is a song ostensibly about courage. Kol Ha’olam Kulo, gesher tzar meod, v’haikar, lo l’fached klal. The song also has an English part. “The whole wide world is a very narrow bridge, but the main thing to recall is not to be afraid at all.”

When I first learned this song as a high school student in Israel, we would sing it after meals. As we would sing, we would get louder and louder, and faster and faster, banging on the tables, making the salt shakers jump and fall over. It made us feel powerful. The most important thing is not to be afraid at all! I remember that I didn’t really understand what was meant by the world being a narrow bridge, but I did understand that the song was encouraging me to face every scary moment without fear. As if that might be possible if I just sang loudly enough.

The longer I’ve sung that song, and the older I’ve gotten, I’ve come to understand a little more about the narrow bridge. We walk through our days moving forwards or backwards knowing that there are always dangers around us. We drive cars knowing that car accidents are likely even when we do everything correctly. We eat too much sugar or fat or drink too much alcohol, even knowing that over time this can harm us in all kinds of ways. We make laws that protect our freedom and we support those laws even when we know that there are abusers of those freedoms out there who will hurt us with the very rights we have granted them.

The world is a scary place, a narrow bridge there is always the potential to fall off. But then why shouldn’t we be afraid? Isn’t that a natural and even rational response to a scary situation, to feel fear. Sometimes we behave better, drive better when we know there are risks. If we weren’t afraid we might drive straight through red lights on purpose.

Well it turns out that this song the way we sing it is not actually the way Reb Nachman wrote it. He did not write, “lo l’fached klal” “don’t be afraid at all” rather he wrote “lo yitpcheid klal” which to an ear not familiar to Hebrew might not sound so different, but it makes all the difference in the world. It turns fear from an active verb to a reflective one. It says, the world is a narrow bridge, but the main thing is not to freak ourselves out. Not to enfear. It’s not about having no fear, rather it is about operating within the fear without letting it stop us from moving forward. Commentary on this says, “Envision a tightrope walker, balance pole in his hands, crossing between two buildings, with no net. He’s scared; but he keeps on moving. Forward, then back, then forward again. Always in motion. If he were to freeze up with fear and stop moving, that’s when he’d be most likely to fall. Hence the bottom line v’hikar she’lo yitpacheid klal, it’s critically important that he not fill himself with fear.”[2]

Well my friends, we have had a summer of fear. We came together here for the Shabbat of the 4th of July, and we sat outside on the patio sharing food with each other, cooking it together looking out at our field—which looked a lot nicer than it does right now. And I remember that evening that with all the joy of celebrating freedom and the fireworks we were going to light together, I felt like I didn’t want to say anything that would ruin the good feelings we were all having. But that was the week that in response to the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli boys, several Israelis had kidnapped and killed a Palestinian boy. I felt that something about that had to be said at a gathering of Jews, something condemning that act of vengeance while also condemning the original kidnapping and murder. In my memory that week was the real beginning of this scary summer we have just come through. Even though the Israelis had been kidnapped much earlier, and that in and of itself was terrifying, the act of vengeance was the one that really scared me.

Vengeance is the kind of thing we do when we are afraid. We are afraid that our own fear and anger will destroy us and the only way to alleviate that is to harm the one who harmed us. It is a cycle and once it starts it becomes very difficult to end. We saw that too this summer. Attacks and retaliations, broken cease-fires, civilians purposely fired upon, accidently fired upon, too much destruction, too many people killed. And not just in Israel.

I was at camp when the Malaysian airlines flight was shot down over Ukraine. A regular commercial flight shot down while flying over a warzone. The passengers on that flight included 100 of the world’s top AIDS researchers on their way to a conference. So many people, so much potential for the world destroyed with one blow.

Non-stop fighting in Syria, an Ebola outbreak.  And ISIL. I can’t. I can’t even get started on the horrors of ISIL.

And with all that, we have watched a rise in world wide, out-in-the-open anti-semitism. Even here in the United States where a recent candidate for the Senate in Kentucky put up signs around town that said, “With Jews we lose.” Now to be fair, this candidate was not supported by either party, he was a write-in candidate. It is not so scary to me that he felt this way, it is however scary that he felt safe enough in today’s atmosphere to not only say it out loud, but to print it on signs all over town believing it would help him to get elected.

I give this list of woes, this list that is for sure not complete, to remind us, just in case we forgot, that the world is a very narrow bridge, and it is hard but we have to keep moving forward without freaking ourselves out.

There are two words in Hebrew for fear, one I’ve already spoken about, pachad, which is the root for l’fached or yitpacheid. This is real bone-chilling fear, the kind that causes Zusya to become like an animal hiding under the bed. But the other word for fear, Yirah has a different meaning. It is a little more like awe. When we say something is awesome, as in “awesome dude,” we are usually saying that whatever it is we are talking about is really good. Full of awe, perhaps full of potential. But when we say something is awful, we don’t usually mean full of awe and full of potential. We mean its terrible. And these are the days we find ourselves in beginning last night. The Yamim Noraim, the days of Awe. This implies both understandings of Awe, both amazement and fear. Not bone chilling fear, but existential fear, spiritual fear. The fear Zusya begins with. He was afraid that he didn’t fully understand the power of God and so he wanted more, but the more was too much.

These days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are supposed to be like that for us. Not terrifying, but we should be concerned. We should be thoughtful, reflective, open to our own failings and shortcomings and prepared to face them. This kind of fear doesn’t freak us out like pachad does. It doesn’t cause us to freeze unable to know which way to turn, what is right what is wrong, which is up and which is down. Rather it should cause us to think carefully to use our fear appropriately to prepare and to heal.

Since the end of the fighting in Gaza, the State of Israel has been doing a lot of soul-searching. To be sure, and let me be clear, Israel has a legal and clear right to exist as a democratic Jewish state. Given that truth Israel also has a legal and clear right to defend herself against violent attack. I do believe that is what happened this summer. I also believe that even in the heat of war Israel kept her head considerably better than any other country at war ever has. A lot can happen in battle and I do not think any battles have ever been as closely monitored by the world as Israel’s has. Her enemies have not been nearly as closely monitored to be sure nor have their actions raised the kinds of world condemnation that Israel’s has. And while the battles were fought the vast majority of Israelis and world wide Jews supported every move that the Israeli army and the Israeli government made. But now when we are no longer filled with pachad but still do have a healthy dose of yirah, now is a good time to reflect and to consider.

That is very much what is happening in Israel now among Israelis. They are thinking a lot about this summer’s events, they are thinking about their own survival, and they are thinking about the best ways to ensure they never have to face another summer like this one.

As Diaspora Jews, we are not responsible for every decision made by Israelis, but we certainly are included in the results of those decisions. Israeli behavior reflects on Jews worldwide and so while we may not have rockets launched at our homes regularly we do still have a responsibility to do what we can both to support Israel and her citizens and to help shape the conversation as we move forward.

When we respond to a threat with pachad with animal fear we will usually not see the entire picture, the edges of the story, we won’t clearly see the future. But when we respond with thoughtful concern, and healthy fear with yirah, we have a chance of turning our fear into hope.

So how do we approach fear and turn it to hope—by doing something. This summer most of what affected Israel came from the outside, that is military attacks, international condemnation etc. When that happens we can best help by vocally and publicly supporting Israel. We can help by sharing news stories that get it right, the stories that look at many sides of the conflict rather than only the most simplified answer. Get informed, stay informed, learn about what’s going on from many sources. When the world turns on Jews outside of Israel, Israel will always be a safe haven for us to return to. But in order for Israel to continue to exist she will always need the ongoing support of diaspora Jews.

Earlier this summer we were very fortunate for the opportunity to have Professor Ken Stein come and speak with us. He taught us a lot and was able to answer so many questions with ease. For me, the best thing he taught us was the reason for Israel’s existence. Israel wasn’t created in response to the Holocaust, that might have been the reason the UN was able to successfully vote for her creation, but it wasn’t THE reason. The 1st and 2nd aliyah movements happened well before the Holocaust. Jews from all over Europe were leaving home and returning to Israel for the thing they couldn’t have anywhere else in the world. Israel was created so that the Jewish people could have the right to self-determination. There was no place else in the world where this was possible. Jewish self-determination continues to be the reason for Israel’s existence. It is the reason that oppressed Jews have always returned and it is the reason they will continue to return.

When Theodore Herzl first envisioned a Jewish state, one very important step he took was to create the World Zionist Organization in 1897. This organization originally was responsible for the work of building the country. After 1948, after the creation of the State of Israel there was still work to do. This organization continues on today as a way to help shape Israel’s internal character. We have a responsibility to help and support here too. Today the work of the WZO primarily involves dispersing international Jewish funds to organizations within Israel. Every five years there is a World Zionist Organization election, these are important because whoever is elected has a say in where the money goes. Will it go to an Orthodox Yeshiva just for men or will it go to a pluralistic program that teaches men and women. Will it go to institutions that support everyone or only those from certain communities.

So this is one of those sermons where I ask you to do more than listen and consider, this is one of those sermons where I ask you to help me. Help us to turn our fear and trepidation our sense of helplessness to a sense of accomplishment. And it’s easy. Any Jew in the world, over the age of 18, who signs the “Jerusalem Program” is allowed to vote. The “Jerusalem Program” is a shared vision of all World Zionist organizations and institutions. It’s principles include

·              Unity of the Jewish people and the connection to Israel

·              A democratic and egalitarian state according to the vision of the prophets

·              Aliyah and settlement in Israel

·              The centrality of Israel to the Jewish world

·              Dissemination of Jewish culture and education

·              Hebrew language

·              Fighting anti-Semitism


You of course may wonder how to cast your vote and also how you might decide who gets your vote. When voting you vote for an ideal, a group that represents you. The Reform movement might be such a group. ARZA is our group. The American Reform Zionist Association. Their ideals include equality for Reform Jews in Israel, gender equality in Israel, and creating a path to a lasting peace and security for Israel. This is an appropriate place for Diaspora Jews to get involved and to help shape Israeli internal policies. We have voting pledge cards available after services and throughout our days of Yirah. These cards ask that you pledge to vote for ARZA, and that is what I would encourage everyone to do. This is the organization our congregation supports and sponsors by being members of the Reform Movement, ARZA is our voice in Israel. However what I hope you do even more than pledge is to take a card so that you have information about the WZO elections and how to get more information to better inform your vote.

In just a few moments we will open the Torah and read the portion for today. It is one of the scariest and most horrifying in the Torah. Our portion tells the story of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. And Abraham does everything to fulfill this command. Fortunately he is stopped by an angel as he holds the knife to Isaac’s throat. The text tells us that Abraham looked Vayar and saw a ram to be offered rather than his son. And then we are told Abraham named the place “Adonai Yireh” “The Eternal One sees.” Such a small linguistic difference between the word seeing and fearing. Without a lot of grammatical understanding and context, there’s almost no difference between yireh and yirah. Fortunately our scary story in the Torah ends with vision a considerably better ending than fear, certainly better than ending with pachad with instinctive animal reactions. Vision will always help us in our transition from terror to consideration to hope.

May it also be for us, for our community of Jews worldwide, for our Israeli community, for all those throughout the world who continue to suffer with constant fear and dread. May we like Zusya, return to ourselves. May we move from pachad to yirah from terror to awe and then finally to yireh to vision and hope.

[1] Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, Schocken Books, New York, 1947, pp.246-247.
[2] Likutei Tinyana 48, by way of Rabbi Stephen Arnold.