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More Yir’ah, Less Fear – Yitro 5782

Let’s be honest with each other: We are all a little more fearful right now. Thank God that what happened in Texas last Shabbat ended safely for the four hostages. But it certainly has not helped with our own sense of ease in our own beit kenesset, our house of gathering.

It is OK to be not OK right now. And so I am proud that, particularly for those of us in the building, that you are here despite the fact that we are not necessarily feeling OK. 

So I want to begin by saying, thank you for being here. Thank you for not letting fear keep you away from your community, from engaging with our tradition, from breathing life into words of prayer in public, from being proudly and proactively Jewish.

In particular, having lived through what we have lived through in Pittsburgh, we all know that the fear is not far from the surface. 

Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, the Emory professor who has made a career of studying and writing about anti-Semitism, published an essay in the New York Times this week titled, “For Jews, Going to Services Is an Act of Courage.” 

Of course, it should not be. And yet, here we are.

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Truth is, I was thinking about fear before I found out after Shabbat last week about the events at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. 

Fear had crossed my mind when I read a column by David Brooks entitled, “America is Falling Apart At the Seams.” Not the kind of fear you are thinking of, however. Rather I was thinking about yir’at Hashem, which is sometimes translated as “fear of God,” although perhaps is better understood as “awe” or “reverence,” or perhaps even Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “radical amazement.”

Brooks invokes some horrible statistics to show that we are angrier, more anxiety-ridden, more abusive, more irresponsible, more drug-addled, more hostile, and more heavily armed than ever. And even worse, he concludes the column by saying, 

… [T]here must also be some spiritual or moral problem at the core of this. Over the past several years, and over a wide range of different behaviors, Americans have been acting in fewer pro-social and relational ways and in more antisocial and self-destructive ways. But why? As a columnist, I’m supposed to have some answers. But I just don’t right now. I just know the situation is dire.

And that is the end of the column. Not only is his lack of suggestions not particularly reassuring, in my head it only raises more fear.

I read the article in print, and upon reaching Brooks’ non-conclusion, I looked up and sighed. And it occurred to me that an answer that Jewish tradition might offer is yi’rat Hashem, fear of God.

Why? Because I think that it is fear of God – the good kind, not the bad kind – which could save humanity. 

What is the good kind of fear, Rabbi? I’m so glad you asked!

Yir’at Hashem – awe, reverence, radical amazement – these are the good forms of fear, and it is this sense of yir’ah which has driven human beings to treat each other better. If we have no reverent appreciation for what we have, if we feel nothing awesome about this world or our existence or Creation or our fellow human beings, of course we will behave badly. Of course there will be terrorists, even those purported to be driven by religion. Of course there will be more abuse and hostility and, well, the bad kind of fear. Without fear of God, we see only ourselves, a distorted, myopic perspective wherein folks are driven by selfishness, greed, and short-term gratification.

You know the story about the three Ḥasidim who are boasting about how holy their rebbes are? The first one says, “My rebbe is so pious, so filled with yir’at Hashem, that he trembles all the time, knowing that he is constantly in the presence of God.”

The second says, “Well, my rebbe is so holy, that the Qadosh Barukh Hu trembles, for fear of displeasing my rebbe!”

The third says, “At first, my rebbe used to tremble. Then God trembled. And then, my rebbe said to the Qadosh Barukh Hu, ‘Look, why should we both tremble?’”

We are all living in God’s presence. It does not matter how you understand God. God is with us, around us, inside of us, up there, down here. We should all be trembling, just a little, just enough to remind ourselves that our duty on Earth is to fulfill God’s word, to act on the 613 mitzvot – opportunities for holiness – which have been given to us.

And what is that framework of mitzvot and halakhah / Jewish law, if not a fulfillment of this yi’rah? Yes, of course there are mitzvot bein adam lamaqom – the mitzvot between humans and God; to some extent they reinforce that sense of yir’ah

But all the moreso, the mitzvot bein adam leḥavero –  those that apply between human beings – they ensure that we treat each other like people. That we respect everybody around us, whatever their station in life, or however they behave, or which language they pray in, or indeed who they vote for. By seeing the humanity in each other. By understanding that wherever there is pain, it is up to us to try to soothe; wherever there is suffering, it is our job to at least try to mitigate it. Yes, of course we are first obligated to take care of those who are closest to us. But that does not mean that we can give up on everybody else.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is yir’at Hashem. That is fear of God. It is in some sense the glue that binds us together as individuals. We eliminate that glue at our own peril.

A few years back, Rabbi Harold Kushner gave a Rosh Hashanah sermon in which he pointed out that one of the first requests of the High Holiday Amidah, is:

וּבְכֵן תֵּן פַּחְדְּךָ ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵֽינוּ עַל כָּל מַעֲשֶֽׂיךָ וְאֵימָתְךָ עַל כָּל מַה שֶּׁבָּרָֽאתָ

Thus, grant that fear of you, Lord our God, be found among all your creatures.

“The fear of God,” says Rabbi Kushner, “means a sense of morality, an awareness that certain things are wrong and should not be done.” And then he goes on to say:

If I could change one thing about the world for this coming year, that would be it – that every human being come to recognize that certain things are wrong and should not be done, that hurting people is wrong, that cheating people is wrong… that your sense of grievance against society for the way your life turned out does not give you license to strike out in blind rage against that society… That’s what made our first ancestors, Adam and Eve, different from the animals. They acquired a knowledge of good and evil.

A little fear, a little awe, is a fundamental human trait; something that we all need. It maintains our morality.

The scene that we read in Parashat Yitro this morning, the one where God speaks to Moshe face-to-face on Mt. Sinai, is set with fear. There is lightning and thunder; the people are warned to keep themselves pure, not to have sex, not to go near the mountain and touch it.

And then, in the midst of all that fear, just after the Decalogue is completed, and the Israelites are trembling in fear, the following happens:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֣ה אֶל־הָעָם֮ אַל־תִּירָ֒אוּ֒ כִּ֗י לְבַֽעֲבוּר֙ נַסּ֣וֹת אֶתְכֶ֔ם בָּ֖א הָאֱ-לֹהִ֑ים וּבַעֲב֗וּר תִּהְיֶ֧ה יִרְאָת֛וֹ עַל־פְּנֵיכֶ֖ם לְבִלְתִּ֥י תֶחֱטָֽאוּ׃

Moses answered the people, “Be not afraid; for God has come only in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may be ever with you, so that you do not go astray.”

Al tira-u. Do not fear, says Moshe. (The Israelites are probably thinking, “Well, why didn’t you say that before?!”)

We need a little more yir’at Hashem; the world needs a little more fear of God, so that we do not go astray, so that we can fear each other less. So that we can sit under our own vine and fig tree, and none shall make us afraid.

The very last hemistich of Adon Olam, which most of us are probably not thinking of too much because at that particular moment we’re generally folding up our tallitot, headed for the door, looking forward to lunch, is:

ה’ לִי וְלֹא אִירָא

Adonai li velo ira.

God is with me, and I shall not fear.

It’s a brief, all-too-easy-to-overlook reminder that this is why we are here: to overcome the fear of humans by fearing God. I fear God, therefore I follow God’s laws, therefore I treat others as I wish to be treated, therefore God is with me, and I have no reason to fear my fellow citizens. Adonai li velo ira.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am hurt and upset and more than a little anxious after two years of pandemic and after just about everything that we have experienced in recent times. I am as raw as the rest of you. And I yearn for a better world, one in which David Brooks can write columns with happy endings. I pray that no synagogue-goers should ever have to experience what happened last Shabbat.

And the way to get there is if we all have just a little more humility, a little more reverence for what we have, a little more respect for all of God’s creatures, a little more prayer, and a lot more yir’at Hashem.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/22/2021.)

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Fear and Brexit – Shelah Lekha 5776

A Facebook friend pointed out that if you pronounce the word “Brexit” as if it were Portuguese, you get something sounds a lot like the first book of the Torah in Hebrew: Bereshit. Go figure. ‘Course, we’re still almost two books away from that, so it seems that the Brexit referendum was not some kind of devar Torah in code.

However, you could not get away from it in the news these past two weeks. (It was a welcome change from the American presidential campaign, which already feels like it’s been going on for at least four years.) The British vote to leave the EU has shocked the world, and Europe is in political turmoil. The British pound has dropped precipitously. Scotland is threatening to leave Great Britain to rejoin the EU. The aftermath of the vote has been so shocking that there are millions of Brits who have signed a petition for a second referendum.

From what I have gleaned from the news, there are a few reasons why 17.4 million Britons voted to leave. Among them is the resentment of having to kowtow to the EU leadership in Brussels. But there is no question that one of the major concerns of those who voted to leave the EU is the apparent anxiety over the numbers of immigrants, from within and without the EU, who have come into Britain in recent years. That concern is related to similar sentiments that many have on this side of the Atlantic regarding immigration, and particularly illegal immigration.

Map of Europe

Put another way, many who voted to leave the EU did so out of fear: fear of change, fear of the other, fear of governmental control in a distant land by people who are not like you.

Fear is actually a major theme in Parashat Shelah Lekha. Moshe sends twelve spies, leaders from each tribe, on a reconnaissance mission to scope out the land of Canaan. Upon returning to the Sinai desert, where the Israelites are encamped, they declare that the Promised land is indeed a land of milk and honey. But ten of them raise the fears of the people by claiming that the Canaanites are gigantic and dangerous, with fortified cities that they cannot conquer. And suddenly, Moshe and Aharon are under attack for leading the people to their perceived deaths.

As you know, the story does not end well for those who whipped up the people’s fears. But let’s face it: fear plays a significant role in the palette of human emotion.

What are some things we are afraid of?

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Fear is a natural human response to change and uncertainty. In this world, how can you not be scared? There is so much to fear.

We the Jews are especially accustomed to fear, owing to the fact that we have been persecuted throughout our history. I suppose that it’s somewhat ironic for us as Jews to watch the internal struggles of the EU from across the ocean, when Europe was the scene of so much oppression and misery and murder of our people for so many centuries.

I am reminded of the time that I sat down with my grandparents to record memories of their lives. My grandmother, aleha hashalom, was born in what is today Ukraine, and came to the United States at age 8, settling in Boston. While my grandfather, alav hashalom, was willing to tell as many details of his school-of-hard-knocks tales as he could recall, my grandmother kept saying, “Why do you want to hear about these things? We were poor and miserable, and the Russians hated us.” She had no interest in or reason to recall the past. It was gone. She had left it on the other side of the ocean, and they were far more comfortable on the welcoming shores of Di Goldene Medine (the “Golden Land,” a Yiddish term for America) than they ever could have been in Europe. And, of course, that was a full two decades before the Nazis arrived.

Europeans continue to struggle with the strangers in their midst. The Jews began to achieve European citizenship beginning with the French Revolution in 1789. But as we all know, their European neighbors never quite thought of them as French or German or English or Russian. They were always Jews. Xenophobia is a long-standing tradition in Europe, and so it’s not too surprising that it is an ongoing challenge to this day.

So we should consider, for just a moment, how this fear continues to shape our world, our opinions, our political choices. And we should acknowledge that we as Jews are called to reach out to the stranger, not to fear him/her. Consider the language that we see over and over in the Torah (e.g. Exodus 22:20):

וְגֵר לֹא-תוֹנֶה וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ, כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Our history of oppression, going all the way back to Egypt, mandates not only that we treat the foreigners in our midst fairly, but also that we recall actively what it means to be an outsider. The great 12th-century Spanish commentator Avraham Ibn Ezra tells us that this is about power. Just because you have more power than the stranger, he says, does not give you the right to abuse that power. Remember where you came from!

Indeed, remember where we came from, not quite as far back as Egypt. Remember the Pale of Settlement of Eastern Europe. Remember the shtetlakh, where the Jews were confined to live. Remember the pogroms. Remember the forced conscription of Jewish boys into the Czar’s army. Remember the Nuremberg Laws, the ghettos, the Einsatzgruppen. Remember the Shoah, the destruction of European Jewry in the name of fear and hatred fomented by the Nazi state.

We are not required as Jews to love others who are not like us. But we are indeed forbidden from oppressing them, from mistreating them, from taking advantage of them, from hating them. And on some level, it is our duty to bring that message to the greater world.

The 18th-century Hasidic rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl (yes, THAT Chernobyl) wrote in his Torah commentary, Me’or Einayim, that we all have the potential to feel threatened by others around us, but that the real cause of our discomfort is not the evil in their hearts, but rather the tum’ah, the impurity in our own. Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe, responds in his work, the Netivot Shalom, that,

“To succeed in overcoming the forces of tum’ah that are deliberately placed in our way, we need to be able to eschew our own inner voices, and align ourselves perfectly with the tzaddik in our midst.”

So these Hasidic masters saw our challenge as an internal one rather than an external one. We fear the other because we are responding to our own inadequacy, and our task is to overcome those fears and reach out.

A third Hasidic rabbi, Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, put it so smartly and succinctly that his saying on the subject has become a popular, sing-along tune:

כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאוד, והעיקר לא לפחד כלל

Kol ha-olam kulo, gesher tzar me’od, veha’iqar lo lefahed kelal.

The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important principle is not to fear at all.

We have to overcome fear of the other, because fear is a destructive force. Not that we should not be vigilant; not that we should be careless; but we should make our choices from a place of confidence and intelligence rather than fear.

Verrazano-Narrows Bridge - bridge-info.org

Had our British friends learned this lesson, perhaps the outcome would have been different. But it’s not too late for the rest of us.

Veha’iqar lo lefahed kelal.

Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/2/2016.)