Rosh Hashana Day 1 – Confronting Fear
2019 – 5780
As I sat down to write my sermons for the holidays this year, I realized that an overwhelming feeling I had about events in the world today was one of fear and dread. It has been an awful year for the world and for our Jewish community in particular. Just 11 months ago our brothers and sisters at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh experienced a harrowing and terrifying shooting. As we know, as Jews were gathering for the shabbat services in the building, 11 were gunned down. If that weren’t enough to frighten the American Jewish community, just 6 months later, on the last day of Passover as Jews were about to recite the Yizkor-memorial prayers, another shooting occurred in a synagogue in Poway, CA leaving 1 dead and three injured. Our place as Jews in America which we have taken for granted and have been blessed is now more precarious.
So many mass shootings have occurred this past year in shopping malls, at schools, and in office buildings. Parents send their children to school not knowing whether they will be safe. We go shopping not knowing whether an incident will occur. There is no reason why Congress can’t pass serious and meaningful gun control legislation. The fact that our elected officials have not acted is inexcusable. Every day that goes by without Congress acting is another day that our lives are threatened.
Many social justice issues that we hold dear are also being threatened. As Jews we should be welcoming to the stranger and encouraging our country to open its border in a coherent and safe way to people who are legitimately seeking asylum. There is no reason why people who are literally running for their lives don’t have the opportunity to seek freedom and safety in our country and instead are met by a figurative and literal wall stopping them in their path.
Ocean waters are rising, weather events are becoming more frequent and more severe and yet our government chooses to ignore these signs. Though 195 countries have signed the landmark Paris Agreement of 2016, a UN sponsored agreement which addresses greenhouse gas emissions and its effect on the ozone layer and our global climate, our government decided to withdraw from it. Though it seems obvious that our environment is threatened, it is even more shocking and frightening that our government has allowed 12 of our national parks to be open to drilling for oil and natural gas.
These are just some of the issues that are weighing on my mind today. A few weeks ago, I attended a Washington Board of Rabbis meeting – our first of the year. It was a high holiday sermon seminar where 5 local colleagues shared ideas that they were working on for the new year. I was surprised to see nearly 40 rabbis in attendance but in retrospect maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised. I think all of us in that room were gathered to try to articulate our despair and angst. Rabbi Rachel Ackerman of Temple Shalom in Silver Spring was one of the 5 rabbis who presented, and she shared a beautiful insight about Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav.
When traveling around Israel it is common to see the following phrase spray painted on buildings, printed on bumper stickers on cars and even embroidered on big white kippot on people’s heads – na, nach, nachma, Nachman, Nachman me-Uman. It looks and sounds like gibberish until the last part when it is understood that it is referring to Nachman from the Ukrainian town of Uman. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, a great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, was the founder of the Breslov dynasty of Hassidism. He lived in the late 18th and early 19th century mostly in what is now the Ukraine. He was known for promoting serious Talmudic scholarship along with a very deep and personal mystical approach to God. That combination formed him into a charismatic personality that attracted hundreds of disciples.
Today, among non-Hassidim, he is best known for a phrase that has been popularized in song. We may know it from camp or from Hebrew school and we may not even realize what we are singing because of the lively tune. (Sing it quickly) Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar me’od ve-ha-ikar lo le-facheid klal – the whole world is a narrow bridge and the point is not to be afraid. It’s a profound statement in which we recognize our precarious place in the world and how we are supposed to respond to the world around us. We could fall off that narrow bridge at any moment. Someone could push us off the bridge. We might not see an obstacle in front of us or we might take a risk and jump over an obstacle and fall. Anything could happen either because of something we do or caused by someone else to make us fall off the bridge. But the point according to Reb Nachman is not to fear. Why? Because God is with us.
But as I sing and focus on the words, I realize that it’s hard not to be afraid. The Hassidic song’s response to the obstacles and tragedies in the world around us works for someone with a traditional understanding of God’s role in the world. Such a person understands that God is always there and will always be there if we just believe. As long as we stay on the path, no matter how narrow and precarious, God will be there to lift us up if we fall and God will also encourage us to keep walking.
But we don’t have to be a traditional Jew to still appreciate the wisdom of Reb Nachman’s teaching. It is clear that our path through the world is fraught with danger. Crises constantly arise, tragedies always occur, our values are continually challenged, yet Reb Nachman teaches that we shouldn’t be afraid. How is it possible not to be afraid? Because we have resources to protect us when we fall. We have family, we have community and we have a value system that provide us with support, strength and confidence.
Knowing that there are people who can help and support us in times of need is inspirational and does provide comfort. We often say to our children “don’t worry, everything will be okay.” If the words don’t help our children feel better, then the fact that we’re hugging them and stroking their hair as we say these words probably does the trick. It could be that was what Reb Nachman had in mind. As we walk across the bridge, we should imagine that God is there for us reaching out and whispering in our ear that everything will be ok.
Providing comfort like this to our children during a thunderstorm may work in the moment, but comfort like this doesn’t really help us confront the ongoing fear we experience today. We can’t go through life walking around like Linus in the Peanuts comic strip sucking our thumb and dragging around a security blanket. We need more sophisticated strategies to recognize the threats and to appropriately respond.
And just as Rabbi Ackerman led us to this frustrating aspect of Rebbe Nachman’s song, she taught that the song is not the original text of his teaching. A rabbi generations later paraphrased Reb Nachman and wrote the song as we know it today. What Reb Nachman really taught was, ve-da she-ha-adam tzareech la’avor al gesher tzar me’od me’od, ve-ha-klal ve-ha-ikar – she-lo yitpached klal - “And know that a person has to cross a very, very narrow bridge and the point and main purpose is not to make himself afraid.” There are two points in this correct version that are quite different from the popular song. Instead of recognizing that the world is a narrow bridge and assuming that we are on that bridge, the real version says that we must cross a bridge. We may not be on the bridge because we are afraid, but we must cross the bridge anyway. Life is about the challenges we face not the refuge we seek to hide from life. Life isn’t about staying at home, hunkered down against the virtual storm of the world around us. Life is about the challenges out there and how we manage crossing the bridge, walking the path through those obstacles.
It’s the last part of the phrase that is the most telling. When one crosses the bridge, one must not make oneself afraid. Clearly fear arises throughout our lives. Moments occur and crises happen, that cause us to be frightened. We can’t help but be afraid of a loved one being sick, of crimes that occur, of the attacks on civic values – it would be unnatural not to be afraid of such things.
But the goal according to this teaching is not to perseverate on that fear. We can’t let the fear take over our lives. We can’t let the fear paralyze us. We can’t just focus on the fear and nothing else. We have to be aware of the fear, recognize that the world is fraught with danger, and proceed cautiously over that bridge.
This version of Reb Nachman’s teaching seems to be more realistic and much more pragmatic. Nachman recognizes that we all are afraid. Human beings who are compassionate and loving people have a lot to fear in the face of evil and tragedy. It’s only human to be frightened. But Reb Nachman teaches that we can’t let that fear overpower us. We can’t let the fear be the underlying emotion we feel all the time. We have to be aware of the fear, confront it, and move forward.
The Torah portion we read tomorrow highlights that awareness of fear and moving forward in the face of it. Abraham as we know, was told by God to bring his son to Mt. Moriah and offer him there to God. That is a frightening mission. Abraham could have refused. Abraham could have argued. And he most certainly was afraid. The son that he and Sarah had waited all their lives for now had to be brought as a sacrifice? When God told him that it must have been the most traumatic moment in his life.
Yet there is a phrase that constantly repeats in the Torah to highlight Abraham’s actions. The Hebrew word for sight occurs no less than 7 times throughout the brief story. Abraham begins the journey and then “lifts up his eyes” and “sees” the place from afar. Abraham responds to Isaac’s question of where the animal is by saying that God would “show” him the animal. The angel stops Abraham’s arm at the last second and God says that Abraham has surely “seen” God. Then Abraham “lifts his eyes” and “sees” a ram hidden in the bush. Abraham offers the ram and calls the place “God has shown”. With every action Abraham performed there was a corresponding awareness, a seeing, that occurred as well.
As Reb Nachman taught, Abraham confronted the fear by looking at it and moving forward. Abraham continued the journey with eyes wide open. Despite the fear of losing his son, despite the possibility that his religious sensibilities would be irreparably damaged, Abraham crossed that bridge with full awareness. He was looking for and making himself aware of possible alternatives. And because of his diligence he was rewarded and blessed.
In Hebrew the word for fear – yud, reish, aleph – and the word for sight – reish, aleph, hey – are often the same. Hebrew words are constructed from three letter roots and in their various forms fear and sight could look like the same word. Some of the very verses I translated a moment ago as Abraham seeing or being aware could have been translated as Abraham being afraid which then would lend a new level of meaning to the story. When Abraham began the journey and lifted his eyes, we could read that he was afraid, not that he saw. When the angel stopped Abraham’s arm Abraham saw God, but it could also be read that Abraham was afraid of God. And when Abraham called the place “have seen God”, he could just as easily have called it “have feared God”.
Fear in the Torah can often have the sense of awe as when Moses saw the burning bush. Such a sight, never seen before, creates a sense of awe and fear. One has to see it or be aware of it in order to be afraid of it or in awe of it. Seeing and fearing go hand in hand. If we don’t see something, if we’re not aware of something, then we can’t be afraid of it. We have to see it in order to react to it.
It’s how we react that is the most important response. The bible is full of people who see something extraordinary and then respond by acting. Moses responds to the burning bush by recognizing God’s presence and agreeing to become the leader of the people. The people of Israel respond to the events at Mt. Sinai - the mountain trembling, the sounds of the shofar and thunder and the lightning – by saying na’aseh ve-nishma – we will do and we will hear, thus expressing their commitment to the Torah. Prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel respond to their first visions of God’s presence – seeing God’s throne and heavenly court – by providing comfort to the people and teaching them about the moral and ethical principles of Judaism.
Fear can be paralyzing. Fear can be debilitating. But with the right support and resources in place, fear can be mobilizing and motivational.
Nearly every week someone with an automatic weapon shoots and kills people. Mass shootings in schools, in malls, at places of work are becoming commonplace. Eleven months after Pittsburgh and five months after Poway, CA we Jews are afraid. Antisemitic acts of violence have been perpetrated this past year as never before and we are afraid. For the first time in years we as American Jews are afraid for our safety and security.
We’ve read about the plight of the central Americans at our border who because of dire, violent and extreme conditions in their villages and towns see no choice but to undertake the arduous and grueling trip to our border. They see no other hope for their future but to attempt to seek asylum here in the land of the free. Yet the border is now essentially closed and not one more person is allowed to cross. We are afraid that the social justice issues on which we were raised are now threatened. We are afraid that the lines etched into the base of the Statue of Liberty, “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free” no longer reflects our policies.
We are afraid that our environment is rapidly deteriorating. National parks are being opened for companies to drill for oil, global warming is ignored or questioned, the ozone layer continues to evaporate, and the ocean levels keep rising. Coastal communities are being threatened and if nothing is done soon life as we know it will drastically change. We are rightly concerned and afraid for the well-being of our planet and life on earth.
All of these are threats to our existence. We are afraid of each of these issues. Antisemitism, gun violence, immigration, climate change are just a few of the threats we face each and every day. But what does Reb Nachman teach? How did Abraham respond? We must confront the threats with open eyes and walk forward without allowing the fear to overtake us.
After the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL 18 months ago the students could have refused to go back to school. They could have stayed home and cowered in fear. But what did they do? They began a nation-wide effort to rally people and lobby congress for gun control legislation. Those of us who attended the March for Our Lives rally in DC in March of 2018 were inspired by those students and others who in the face of overwhelming fear and despair decided to act. They spoke eloquently about the horrors they saw and how in the face of it they knew they needed to speak out. In the face of fear, they spoke about hope.
Armando Rojas served as the custodian of Beth Torah synagogue in Mt. Kisco, NY for over 20 years. He arrived here from Mexico, married, had a child, paid taxes, paid into social security and yet was still not a citizen. He was devoted to his synagogue and everyone in the shul loved him. Because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, in a restaurant when a fight broke out, he was detained by the police. His name ended up on a list of illegals and an ICE officer arrested him. Rabbi Aaron Brusso and his congregation immediately intervened by hiring a lawyer for him, providing meals for the family and providing moral support. To no avail. Armando was deported to Tijuana, Mexico. The congregation didn’t give up the fight. They organized two trips to Tijuana to continue supporting him and filling out the paperwork so that he could officially seek asylum. They wrote dozens of character reference letters on his behalf. In the meantime, because of his status, he was first detained in New Mexico and then transferred to a facility in Albany. The congregation held vigils outside the synagogue and gained publicity in the New York area. Finally, last December, in fact the day after Christmas, Armando was granted asylum and reunited with his family.
Rabbi Brusso wrote movingly of the process his congregation and he undertook to support Armando. In the face of ICE – the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and other bureaucratic obstacles, his community responded. In the face of the unjust treatment of a Mexican who had been here trying to live out the American dream as legally as he could, the synagogue lived up to the Jewish value of “loving the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt”.
In August of 2018 at the age of 15 Greta Thunberg took time off from school to demonstrate outside the Swedish parliament for climate change. Other Swedish students soon took notice and they too took time off from school to demonstrate. With the help of other students, Greta organized the school strike movement known as Fridays for Future. Every Friday, somewhere in the world, students take off from school and demonstrate for climate change. You may have heard that such a rally was held just a couple of weeks ago in Rockville and there was a debate as to whether students in Montgomery County would be allowed an excused absence to attend and participate. Last week, Greta was a featured speaker at the UN climate conference and Time magazine has called her a young leader to watch. In the face of great obstacles of climate change deniers, and critics who make fun of her disability – she has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome – Greta has risen above them and been the face of awareness of climate issues.
These are just a few examples of people who saw injustice and decided to act. They are people who recognized the insurmountable odds and realized they had no choice but to speak up. They are people who despite the fear of retribution, criticism, and even arrest, stood up for our values and became voices of change and inspiration.
In a few moments we will recite the famous piyyut – hymn – the U-netaneh Tokef. In it the medieval poet imagines us as a flock of sheep waiting to be counted. These sheep are fearful not knowing what lies in store for them. Animals have a sense when they are being led to the slaughter. They can smell the blood; they can smell the fear in the other animals around them. Their own fear is thus compounded by the fear of the other animals.
As the poet continues, we don’t know who shall live and who shall die. It is an anxious and fearful time. The list of possible ways to die grows longer and only compounds our own fear. Will this be me or someone I love? Will I have to face this tragedy this year? What can I do?
Just as we are afraid to cross that bridge, in the words of Reb Nachman, the poet gives us an out. He says that teshuva – an awareness of our own complicity in these threats around us and committing ourselves to act – and tefilla, prayer as we are gathered here today – and tzedaka – acts of charity or social justice can avert our fears. We have the tools to deal with these threats to our society. We have the resources to acknowledge our basic values and to stand up for them. We have the tools to be advocates for positive social change. We just have to act. We just have to say that we will cross that bridge and we will do so together.
It is difficult to stand up for justice. It’s easy to do it from the safety of our homes or from the security of our sanctuary. But it’s imperative that we take our commitment to face our fears and be forces for change to the next level. We can’t sit idly by. We must confront these threats and we must say proudly as Americans and as Jews that we will do all we can to eradicate these threats from our midst. We want our country to be the land of the free. We want our country to be safe for all people and for all religions. We want our country to be a place where people of all colors and children of all ages can go to school or walk down the street and not have to fear for their lives. We want our country to reflect the ideals we recited every day in school, “one nation under God with liberty and justice for all”.
If we can be so inspired, then we will be written in the book of life and this will be a sweet and happy new year. Amen.