I stand before you at the beginning of this new year, 5 thousand, 7 hundred and eighty-three. This evening I want to address the fears we may all share in this moment as we seek the ways to live with those fears and move forward with grace and compassion towards ourselves and others.
From the Jewish tradition, we learn from Rabbi Nachman, 18th century founder of the Bratslav Chassidic movement:
וְדַע, שֶׁהָאָדָם צָרִיךְ לַעֲבֹר עַל גֶּשֶׁר צַר מְאֹד מְאֹד, וְהַכְּלָ
וְהָעִקָּר – שֶׁלֹּא יִתְפַּחֵד כְּלָל
Know- that a person must cross a very, very narrow bridge and what is
essential is that one should not be overcome by one’s fear – so frightened that we are paralyzed!
How is this possible, that is, how can we control the worry, anxiety, emotional disturbance, and perhaps trauma and paralysis of our fears? How can we not let fear disintegrate into despair?
Famous Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote in 1863: “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” Daniel Wegner (1948-2013), a psychology professor at Harvard University, tested it out over a century later with a simple experiment, as described in his 1994 book, White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts: Suppression, Obsession, and the Psychology of Mental Control: He asked participants to verbalize their stream of consciousness for five minutes, while trying not to think of a white bear. If a white bear came to mind, he told them, they should ring a bell. Despite the explicit instructions to avoid it, the participants thought of a white bear more than once per minute, on average.
What are the white bears — the overwhelming fears — in our life at this moment? It would be presumptuous and disrespectful for any person to try to assess the reality of another person’s kishkes, or justify or diminish what frightens the other. I can only truly share with you what I fear and obsess about, even as I stand before you this evening.
I see around me members of a holy congregation trying to live a worthy and ethical life amid attitudes and behaviors that thrive on self-interest at the expense of canceling out those who might be perceived as an adversary in any way and amid the onslaught of biased and inflammatory rhetoric springing up around us like weeds in a moist and fertile environment. I see Jews becoming public scapegoats and targets for both hatemongers and those being recruited and nurtured towards hate by the explosion of malevolent social media outlets. Here, I am reminded that when my children were growing up and becoming addicted to action-hero movies and TV shows, parents were warned that children might have difficulty separating reality from fiction and that we should watch these shows with our kids and continually comment that the violence on the screen was not reality and did no harm. Did we fail in this endeavor? Did we not stick around enough to ensure our kids understood? Or, has media truly taken precedent over human communication.? I honestly have no answer or solution, nor can I stop thinking about not being able to protect all of us from this seemingly unstoppable tornado of intolerance turning into hate turning into violence.
From an article published on August 31, and as prooftext to a fear for our physical safety, we learn that more than 2,700 antisemitic incidents were recorded in the United States in 2021, a 34% increase over the previous year, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s annual audit. That marks the highest number since the organization started tracking such incidents in 1979. Has God turned away, gone on walkabout, or stopped listening to our pleas, or, alternatively, is this a human dilemma for humans to solve?
I fear for a lack of time, energy, and initiative to care about those in need today and the health of the planet for all of the next generations, including our own children and grandchildren. You, beloved members of Temple B’nai Israel, are exemplary practitioners of Gemilut Chassadim, deeds of loving kindness. In a strictly volunteer capacity, you feed the hungry, you reach out to the lonely and the mourner, you lovingly attend to all the needs of this sanctuary building, you enable those unable to worship in person to participate on zoom, and attend to the needs of so many outside the TBI congregation in a myriad of ways. Are all these mitzvot that you all do enough to sustain the congregation that is so beloved and to provide a spiritual home for those we have not yet engaged? Are we driven beyond our abilities and do we fear the onset of inertia for lack of immediate success? And, where do we put our energies as we know that not one size fits all?
I fear the loss of truth? Who are the truthtellers today? Aside from politics and journalism and pollsters, we can seek truths from our biblical prophets and psalmist, believe it or not. The prophets spoke truth to power, empowered to brazenly oppose all in power, both priests and kings, to pursue justice. Their call summons us 3000 years later. It’s not by accident that the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had framed on her office wall the biblical quote: Tzedek Tzedek tirdof – justice, justice you shall pursue, and MLK preached the verse from the prophet Amos: let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream. The psalmist spoke to the human condition in all its fullness and foolishness, from praising the One who created and sustains us, to letting our time on earth slip away to greed and self-possessiveness, to weeping by the river of Babylon as downtrodden exiles, to planting strong roots for generations to come to blossom anew. What are the risks in becoming brazen like our biblical prophets or transforming our everyday habits to focus more conscientiously on a life devoted to those who come after us?
Who doesn’t experience fear, anxiety, anger, hurt, pain, jealousy, frustration, or some other negative feeling I may have omitted here? We all do. It’s part of the human experience.
Regarding Dostoevsky’s white bear, Wegner’s research found evidence that when we try not to think of something, one part of our mind does avoid the forbidden thought, but another part “checks in” every so often to make sure the thought is not coming up—ironically, bringing it to mind. This psychological discovery is, indeed, spoken and written into all that Judaism understands as the truth of the human condition. We exist and we move forward in our existence because we are fearful and we are uplifted, empowered, and in awe of our existence at one and the same time. How do we know this to be so?
First is Yirat Shamayim – translated from the Hebrew as both fear of the Heavens, of God, and also the awesomeness of God. Some understand yirat Shamayim as a counterpoint to ahavat Shamayim, translated as the love of God, begging the question: do we fear or do we love God. Here, we might understand fear and love as two sides of a whole and holy relationship, the fear as respect for that which we cannot know or control wholly and the love directed to both our constant seeking to know and care about that which remains beyond our reach. If we focus on yirat Shamayim exclusively, we are meek and small before the Eternal, but also we are part of the majesty and beauty of that Presence who relates to us humans through blessing and bounty. Medieval commentator, Rashi astutely comments: those who serve God primarily through fear do so only as long as it “works” for them. Once they no longer see their devotion as exempting them from the hazards and disappointments of life, their inducement for serving God also stops. In modern lingo, I understand Rashi to mean that acting out of fear, whether in fear of God or in fear of other humans, in order to maintain one’s comfortable and safe status quo, only goes so far. Believing in the awesomeness of God is believing in the potential awesomeness of humanity, created in God’s image, necessitating crossing the narrow bridge of our fears, despite our fears.
Second is an insight from our Kabbalistic tradition which sounds like a modern psychological approach: The mind develops an idea, understands it, and then gauges how it feels about it. The heart comes marching in closely thereafter, developing a corresponding emotional response. You first hear about the wonders of a certain person, you get to know them, you start realizing how terrific they are, and before you know it, you develop feelings for them. You now like them.
Or, you hear about a social ill, you start reading about how rampant it has become, you begin to understand how devastating it is, and before long, you’re repulsed and angry about the situation. You just went through the process of mind to heart, cognition to emotion. So say our sages: being aware of the process that produces our negative feelings provides a method of taming them.
Yet, I don’t for a minute really believe that we can tame our fears or pull out the rug under them, so to speak.
So, here we are together, struggling to enter a new year with all these fears that are weighing me down, perhaps weighing you down . . . Judaism invites us to hold the fears in one hand and hold love in the other. And, love can mean many different things: the comfort of simply being together and leaning into our fears with our family and friends holding us up on either side to keep us standing. Love can be the gratitude for healing of heart and body on the heels of sickness, suffering or grief, or the moments of peace that come with letting go for some part of every day that which gnaws at you or that which cannot be fixed by you or anyone else. The poet April Green writes: remember that fear grasps and clings onto things, while love lets go. This verse was quoted by the young adult son of a close friend, whose high school pal drowned and who feared that his grief over the loss would stop him from following his own dreams. And finally, in the wise words of one of my mentors, herself a second career rabbinical student, commenting on the famous words of Rabbi Nachman:
How can you “command” yourself – or anyone else – not to feel afraid?
Or to feel or not feel anything?
It’s crazy – we feel what we feel!
But we have a choice about whether we allow anxiety to dictate our actions,
Or we can have the courage to tolerate the anxiety and do it anyway.
Real fear is a gift. It helps to keep us safe.
Anxiety (fear with no basis in fact) hinders us.
We all have bridges to cross throughout our lives.
We have personal ones, and communal ones (like standing up for a social cause even if others disapprove).
Some are externally erected.
Others we erect ourselves.
These are often the bridges that separate us from others.
What are the narrow bridges that you will attempt to cross this year? A ruptured relationship, a courageous call to address injustice, an intentional act of self-care, or outreach to one who needs care that has hitherto been outside your comfort zone? Please join me in feeling our fears and crossing the bridge anyway! Shelo yitpacheid klal! Kein yihiye ratzon – May this be so – L’shanah tova!