On Fear | Kol Nidre Sermon 5778
Delivered by Senior Rabbi Rachel Timoner
This we know: on August 11th Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, Virginia was preparing for Shabbat services when they saw three Nazis armed with semiautomatic rifles standing across the street from the synagogue. They’d known the Nazis were coming, but the police had refused to protect them. The congregation’s leadership decided to move the Torah scrolls out of the synagogue for safekeeping. When services were over, congregants were told to leave through the back door.
White supremacists took over the town of Charlottesville on that Shabbat. There to defend the statue of Robert E Lee, the white nationalists marched through the University of Virginia quad chanting “Jews will not replace us.” They physically assaulted a group of interfaith clergy who stood in peaceful vigil. They rammed a group of counter protesters with a car, killing Heather Heyer (z”l) and wounding thirty five others. As we all know by now, the president of the United States said there were fine people among them, and he equated the Nazis with the protesters who came to oppose white supremacy.
If we were to rank the kinds of incidents that most frighten American Jews, Charlottesville has the makings to reach the top. Nazis, white nationalists, and white supremacists banding together. All of them armed and all of them placing antisemitism at the center of their racist agenda. The use of Nazi symbols and language, including the Nazi flag, the sig heil salute, and the phrase “blood and soil.” Threatening a synagogue with fire and violence. And, most menacingly, this was only one demonstration in a nationwide campaign to build white nationalist power, fueled by the belief that the president of the United States supports them.
Since the election, many of you have shared significant fears with me: fears of nuclear catastrophe; fears that your sons will be drafted to fight a war; that our planet will be uninhabitable for our grandchildren; that you or your loved ones will lose needed health care; that you will lose the right to end a pregnancy or prevent one; that you will lose the right to use a bathroom or be married; that your immigrant neighbors and friends will be taken away in the night; that the armed Nazis and white nationalists will take power and we will need to flee this country or will not flee in time.
Your phone buzzes. Is it a sweet message from a loved one or is it another unstable presidential tweet? A scandal or a threat of war? How many times a day does your pocket buzz with an alert? Innocuous or terrifying, you never know. It vibrates through your nervous system: “Alert! Danger! Be vigilant!” What is this hair-trigger, never-ending adrenaline response doing to our hearts?
All of these fears are layered on top of our pre-existing anxiety. Before the last election, anxiety and stress were already the leading health risk in America. Sometimes I wake in the night afraid. Maybe you do too. Sometimes I’m anxious about what the future will hold for myself or the people I love, or for this congregation for which I feel so responsible. I know that you worry too. There are people in this room who are sick or in pain and afraid that they’re not going to get better. There are people who fear that a loved one will die this year. There are people anxious that they will not be able to get a job, or that they’re going to run out of money. There are people who are worrying about a child who is struggling, or a marriage that’s feeling strained. There are people traumatized by 9/11 and mass shootings, who have regular flashes of fear that something terrible might happen.
A remarkable amount of our anxiety is about what other people think: what if my performance isn’t good enough and I lose clients or my job? What if I’m late, or say something stupid, or make a mistake or am not prepared and they lose respect for me or get angry at me? What if I embarrass myself, what if I’m seen as a failure? What if people think I’m a bad parent? What if they don’t like me?
Researchers have found that we spend on average almost two hours a day in fearful and anxious thoughts, which is about five years of 65 year adult life. And 85 percent of what we worry about never happens.
Cynical leaders have actively cultivated fear forever, but our new president has a particular talent for exploiting fear.
Fear sells. It is used not only by politicians, but also the entertainment industry, the media, and advertisers to get our clicks, our viewing hours, our dollars.
But it’s confusing, because we are taught from an early age not to be afraid: “The only thing to fear is fear itself.” “Kol HaOlam Kulo Gesher Tsar Meod. The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the important thing is not to be afraid.” Boys, in particular, learn that it is humiliating to be afraid. Men are supposed to be strong. Fear looks weak. Boys and girls alike learn to deny their fear, reject it, repress it.
In Torah, we are told again and again not to be afraid. God commands us when we’re standing at the shore of the Red Sea, when Pharaoh’s army is approaching, “al-tira-u.” “Do not fear.” (Ex. 14:13) In the Torah passage we read Rosh Hashanah morning, an angel of God tells Hagar al tir’i, “Don’t be afraid”. (Gen 21:17) Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ruth, David, Daniel, Isaiah are all told not to fear.1 In fact, the phrase “do not fear” appears so often in Torah that Maimonides counts it as one of the 613 commandments.2
The Jewish people are commanded not to be afraid? How’s that going for us?
Isn’t our people’s hyper-alert and anxious nature a key to our survival? Researchers now say that fear is passed down among at least some of our people epigenetically,3 but it may be that our propensity for fear is a consequence of collective trauma rather than an effective survival strategy.
It doesn’t feel good to be afraid, anxious, stressed. Physiologically, the amygdala in our brain sends a signal to our sympathetic nervous system, which sets our fear response in motion: stress hormones are released throughout our body, our heart rate increases, blood pressure goes up, our breathing gets quicker, our blood moves away from the heart toward the extremities so that we can run or fight, our muscles tighten and contract, and our digestive system shuts down. This physiological response is unpleasant, unhealthy if it occurs chronically, and usually unnecessary. Fight or flight was once an appropriate response, but rarely anymore, so we find ourselves freezing, with our heart racing and our muscles tense, feeling paralyzed.
Perhaps the most problematic aspect of fear is that it circumvents the cerebral cortex, where conscious thought occurs, and stress hormones suppress concentration, inhibition, and rational thought. According to Joseph LeDoux at the Center for Neuroscience at NYU, fear is processed twenty times faster than conscious response to stimuli, which means that when we’re afraid we’re likely to act without thinking, and when our cerebral cortex catches up, our capacity for high level cognition is suppressed. That’s why workplaces with high levels of stress see lower performance from employees.
And that’s why fear is confusing and can lead us away from wisdom. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the greatest rabbis of the 20th century admitted: “I know that I am perplexed, that my fears are irrational, incoherent. At times I am given over to panic; I am afraid of death. At other times, I am horrified by the thought of becoming, God forbid, incapacitated during my lifetime. . . I don’t know what to fear, what not to fear; I am utterly confused and ignorant”4
I’m worried about what fear is doing to our hearts: chronic anxiety hardens and blocks the heart. Our heart muscle contracts more when we’re stressed, and over time, our coronary arteries become thickened5. Emotionally, after a long period of anxiety, the heart begins to feel numb, closed, blocked. When we don’t feel safe, we try to protect ourselves, shield ourselves, wall off our vulnerability. It becomes more difficult to arouse feelings of tenderness, compassion, love, hope, gratitude. We can start to feel isolated, making it difficult to connect to other people or to God.
In response to the overwhelming and unrelenting stress of this time I see many people shutting down. I see people obsessing about headlines and checking social media addictively. Instead of paying attention to what it feels like to be afraid, we click on the next headline, pumping ourselves with more adrenaline. The sheer volume of input distracts us from our hearts and numbs us.
There is some relief in going numb. We have learned since childhood how to deny our fear. But repressing fear is not the same as being fearless. Even if we choose to ignore it, our tight necks and headaches betray the stress present in our bodies.
Closing the heart might be the worst thing we can do. Closing the heart is how we become accustomed to thuggery and brutality. Closing the heart is how we become callous. Closing the heart is how we lose our line in the sand, become imperceptibly habituated to evil.
On Yom Kippur we beat our breasts, knocking on our hearts with our fists. In Judaism, the heart represents the entire inner being. It’s not just the seat of emotion but also intelligence, and the soul. From the beginning, Torah has been worried that our heart, our very inner being, is blocked, closed off. We are commanded, “Open your hearts and stiffen your necks no more.” (10:6) The image in the Hebrew is to cut away a thick covering over our hearts that blocks us from feeling, connecting outward to others, inward to truth, and upward to God.
This “is a metaphor for a radical, interior renewal”6 that enables us to once again become sensitized, perceptive, awake to the truth speaking through our hearts.
Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in his book, the Insecurity of Freedom, “The spirit is a still small voice, and the masters of vulgarity use loudspeakers.”… “Perhaps this is the most urgent task, to save the inner [life] from oblivion.” …. “The fact is that [we] who know so much about so many things know neither [our] own heart nor [our] own voice.”
Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, a profound Chasidic master who taught and died in the Warsaw ghetto teaches, “…we are blocked emotionally. When we feel deeply, either the excitement of joy or the dejection of sorrow, we become immediately more open and alive. .. conversely, when our minds and hearts are constricted, we cannot fathom thoughts that transcend our physical needs and perceptions. This is especially true when we are anxious. Anxiety is not the same as despair or brokenheartedness—anxiety is itself a kind of obstacle.”
On this night, Yom Kippur, we knock away the thick layer of fear to make our hearts alive again, soft again, to take down the wall between inner and outer worlds. To be able to hear again the voice that speaks through us.
For God is calling us.
Our souls are calling us.
Through the still small voice of our hearts.
Do we have the courage to listen to our hearts even in frightening times?
The word Courage comes from the latin cour, meaning heart. In Hebrew, courage is ometz lev, Heart Strength. Courage is not the absence of fear, but heart strength. It is the ability to do what must be done even when we are afraid.
Fear is inescapable. How do we develop Ometz Lev, Heart Strength?
A midrash from Genesis Rabbah. The rabbis ask: Given his fear of his brother Esau, why did Jacob settle so close to him? A story is told: There once was a man who, while on a journey, saw a pack of wild dogs, and he was seized with fear of them. What did he do? He sat down among them.
This is not advice for the next time you face a pack of wild dogs. If God forbid, there are armed Nazis in front of your synagogue, go out the back door. But the midrash demonstrates a Jewish ideal for mastering fear. Not fight, flight, or freeze, but with all of the adrenaline running through the body, take a dignified seat. Feel the fear, and sit down right in the middle of it. Jacob had real reasons to be afraid of Esau. Remember, the last time they met, Esau came with 400 men. The Torah says of Jacob, Vayira Yaakov Meod. Jacob was very afraid. But his fear did not stop him. He lived where he wanted to live, right in the midst of his fear.
Because we find fear unpleasant, and because we were taught not to be afraid, we reject fear before we even know that it is present. We might instantly turn fear into anger, because anger feels powerful, not weak. We flood fear with thoughts, trying to rationalize it, tell a story about it, judge it. But all of our avoidance only multiplies fear. I think that when the Torah tells us not to fear, it means not to panic, not to let fear control us.
When fear arises it is asking for attention. The first question is: how close and real is the danger? Do I need to run or take action? If not, can I welcome the fear, can I tolerate it, make room for it, get curious about it? What does it feel like in my body to be afraid: a clenched jaw, tightening around the ribs, constricted breathing, a twisted stomach. Can I get to know it?
The only way to sit down in the midst of a pack of wild dogs, the only way to find courage in frightening times, is to make friends with fear. Invite it in, bring kindness to it, and find that
WE ARE BIGGER THAN ANY FEAR.
Courage is born of fear. We cannot develop heart strength without being afraid. If we learn this……then something powerful happens….. we can transmute the fear of Pharaoh into the fear of God.
When the midwives, Shifra and Puah, were ordered by Pharaoh to murder all of the Israelite boys, they were facing a clear directive from the world’s most powerful tyrant. The consequence of disobeying would be grim. They must have been terrified. But, Torah teaches, “the midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them. They let the boys live.”
What was this fear of God that could enable the midwives to be so brave? The Hasidic commentary Mei ha-Shiloach says, “when one fears a person, one cannot remain calm…. However, awe of heaven brings calm to the soul….” The Zohar calls this “holy fear.” Orhot Tzaddikim says, “this fear is really love.”
The same Torah that commands us not to fear also commands us to fear. How do these ideas coexist? In fact, the commandment to fear God is considered by many to be “the foundation of the entire Torah.”7 I used to recoil at that idea. I don’t want to be afraid of God, I don’t believe in a God who punishes me. Only in recent years did I understand: the real fear of God is not fear of consequences. It is awe. It is a reprioritization of fear, replacing all those fears of what other people think or might do to us, with what we really should be afraid of, like are we failing to live up to our values? Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson teaches: “Yirat Shamayim, [fear of heaven] is the beginning of an inner liberation from the tyranny of human opinion and coercion… the pressures of conformity or social consensus….”
It comes through wonder at the expanse of the cosmos, reverence at the splendor of living and being, recognition of “the frailty of even the most imposing human personage” in relation to the majesty and grandeur of the Source of all life.
Rabbi Artson continues, “For the Hebrew midwives, fear of God was a way of seeing Pharaoh for who he was – simply another human being seeking to silence his own fear and fragility by bullying the weak. It was their awe and wonder at God’s [presence] that imbued these women with clarity about their own real greatness: the opportunity to shine God’s light in a murky and hurting world.”
Fear of God opens of our hearts to the life-giving voice within us, aligning our lives with our sense of transcendent purpose.
Rabbi Soloveitchik taught that on Yom Kippur most of all we pray for fear of God. We pray that fear of God will uproot all of the other fears that plague us: fears of failure, poverty, loneliness, rejection, old age, disease. This prayer on Yom Kippur is that all of the fears that bind our lives, that cover our hearts, that shut us down, that limit us, will be traded in for a single deep longing: that we live the lives we are here to live.
This is holy fear, the fear that is really love. This is the source of courage.
Again Heschel: “Modern [human beings] continue to ponder: What will I get out of life? What escapes [our] attention is the fundamental yet forgotten question: What will life get out of me?” “[We find ourselves] caring only for [our] needs rather than being needed.”
If there ever was a time when we were needed, a time that called out for courageous human beings, for heart strength, this is that time.
When the history is written of the years when American democracy was threatened, the Nazis were marching, the free press was imperiled, human rights were violated, war was on the horizon, the earth was trashed, immigrants were threatened, the sick were at risk, and evil cast its shadow across our land, what do you want your personal response to have been?
We ask ourselves, am I needed like Shifra and Puah to use my privilege to challenge injustice? Will I be needed, like Sally Yates, to give up my job to do what’s right? Will I be needed to take a knee like Colin Kaepernick, using my position or visibility or status to take action that ripples out across my field? Will I be needed like George Polisner, the 57-year old Oracle manager who left his high salary behind to start a non-profit that engages citizens in issues like health care, education, and climate change? If I’m not doing what I’m meant to do in the world, what are the fears that are stopping me?
Or am I needed right where I am? Am I, in fact, doing exactly what I’m meant to do in the world? Can I act with courage right where I sit? If I could trade fear of human consequences for fear of God, what would I do differently?
We do not know what will happen in this next year and that is frightening. The more we get friendly with fear, the better off we’re going to be. We don’t have to figure out right now how we’re needed. We just have to own our fears so we’re ready. We just have to knock away the covering over our hearts so we can hear the call coming through them.
1) Let’s turn off the headline alerts. Most of us do not need to know more than once a day what is happening in Washington and it’s not worth the toll on our bodies. When we give in to the addiction, it’s an opportunity for teshuva. Let’s make it a discipline that strengthens us.
2) Let’s get to know fear. Every time we feel stressed or anxious, let’s take the opportunity to make room for fear, make friends with it. Let’s develop heart strength by owning our fear.
3) Let’s knock away the protective layer over our hearts and let them be open. Let’s listen to the still small voice for how we are needed.
4) Frightening things will continue to happen in our own lives and in the world. People we love will be sick or will struggle. There will be Nazis. The brutality of white supremacy will continue to ruin lives. Immigrants will be in danger. Threat of war will continue to haunt us. Hundreds of issues will require a response. Pick one, maybe two, and commit. Love through your action with all your heart. Don’t hold back. The freedom of owning our fear will give us energy and direction.
I am giving you something tonight to remind you in these frightening times of your ometz lev, your heart strength. If you are sitting on the aisle on the left side of your pew, you will find a small bag beneath your feet. Open it. If you want, take one and pass the bag down the row. Whenever you feel closed off or shut down by the weight of these times, whenever you need heart strength, find it in your pocket and remember what you’re capable of.
Holy One, give us the courage to sit down in the midst of our fears. Help us to knock away the covering over our hearts so we can hear You. Show us through holy fear, the fear that is really love, how to respond to these times, so that we will live the lives we are here to live. Amen.
1 This section from Rabbi Yael Splansky who writes, “In every generation-from Ruth to David to Daniel-… our biblical ancestors heard these words just when they needed them most. Just when they felt most vulnerable, most alone,… our prophets heard and delivered God’s message … [as Isaiah did]: “Fear not, for I am with you. Do not be frightened, for I am your God” (Isaiah 41:10).
2 (Sefer HaMitzvot, Lo Ta’aseh, 58; Yad, Hilchot M’lachim7:15).
3 Researchers like Dr. Kerry Ressler at Emory School of Medicine and Dr. Rachel Yehuda at Mount Sinai School of Medicine are finding that fear and anxiety can be not only learned by children from their parents but also inherited epigenetically from generation to generation. (“Why Jewish Anxiety is No Laughing Matter, Madison Mangolin, Jewish Daily Forward, Aug 9, 2015)
4(“Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah,” J.B. Soloveitchik, Tradition, Spring, vol. 17, no. 2, 1978, pp. 62-3).Also from Rabbi Yael Splansky
5Stress Effects on the Body, American Psychological Association. http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-body.aspx
6Richard Nelson in Shai Held, the Heart of Torah
7Bachya ben Asher in Bradley Shavit Artson