Monday, July 15, 2013

What is this thing we call fear?

My friend Richard
One of my dearest friends is Richard Walden. Rich is a member of our congregation and has served on the board for several years. Before that he and his wife both taught Hebrew on Sunday mornings (Susan is coming back to the faculty this year!) He studied the classics and ended up becoming a banker. But every Friday, he boards an early afternoon train from New York to be back in time for our 6:00 p.m. Shabbat service. He is back in the morning for our 8:00 a.m. service. He is generous and an all around mensch. I am biased, but I dare you to find someone to disagree! 

Several times a year, he volunteers to read Torah at our service when there is not a 14 year old reprising their Bar or Bat Mitzvah parshah. And when he reads, Rich also likes to give the D'var Torah. This past Shabbat was one of those days. Rich nailed the chanting - he is not a musician but he has a deep resonant voice that brings the emotion of the text right off the page and into your kishkes. And here is his D'var Torah. I felt the need to share. Yasher koach Richard!

What is this thing we call fear? It is an incredibly complex emotion that is woven into Torah in many ways and has been with us from Eden right on through our 40 years of wandering. So what is fear? Is it lack of courage? Is it all about rational or irrational phobias?

This week is parashat Devarim, the opening of Deuteronomy, the book in which Moses retells our journey. In this section Moses recalls the spies who are sent to check out the land promised to us by God. As luck would have it, I met them just a few weeks ago when I stood in as Rabbi for the Friday night service at parashat Shlach. Well, I am with the spies once more and we are getting ready to cross the Jordan. Once again we go out and once again we learn that the land is indeed flowing with milk and honey. Oh but we silly, silly spies. We never learn, and we return, still filled with fear about the giants who live there.

Once again God is angry with us, and sure enough, God punishes us for not trusting—40 years of wandering in the desert AND no one but Joshua will enter the promised land.

So, what is FEAR in Torah? After eating from the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve hide their nakedness from God in fear (Gen 3:10). God tells Abraham to “fear not” when he is sent on his journey in Lech Lecha (Gen: 15:1). At the shores of the Red Sea we are told not to fear Pharaoh’s army (Ex 14:13) and endlessly elsewhere it seems we are told to have no fear.

Does God want us to have the ability to look physical or emotional stress in the eye and say, ‘no big deal, I can take it’? We are tough, we don’t fear anything? We are told in this week’s portion that the spies Moses sent to reconnoiter the promised land “have taken the heart out of us, saying ‘we saw there a people stronger and taller…large cities with walls sky-high.” (Deut. 1:28). Is that what fear is, lack of courage in the physical world?

Well wait one minute. That can’t quite be it. Throughout Torah we are absolutely told to fear God. Later on in Deuteronomy we get the classic turn of the Ve’ahavta to love God “with all your heart and with all your soul and all your might”—but FEAR “lest the anger of the Lord your God blaze forth” (Deut. 6:4). We were told directly in Leviticus “you shall fear your God: I am the Lord” (Lev 19:14). It would seem that just as many times as we are told to have no fear, we are told also to be very, very afraid.

Maybe fear is more about a lack of trust. Is that what Torah is getting at? We should have complete confidence in God without any need for evidence or support other than ‘God said so’. If we learn to truly trust God, we will have no fear. We do see this theme regularly in Torah. Think about when Moses is told to talk to the rock to bring forth water, but instead, hits it twice. He is punished for this and we are never told why, but it would seem to be because Moses did not trust in the words and needed that physical manifestation of power.

Torah gives us some interesting juxtapositions about fear, courage and trust. Should we have blind faith in God and complete trust only in the divine? Or, is there some level of human free will that plays a role in any enterprise? Where do the physical and divine worlds of trust and fear meet? We still need to drive our cars, we can’t trust in God to steer a car. It would be unheard of in Judaism to substitute prayer for medical assistance—work to save a life is expressly permitted on Shabbat—even if we believe in prayers of healing. Torah recognizes human action and free will, even while demanding trust in God.

Ok, so let’s recap. We need to stand in awe of God and fear God, but we need to trust completely and have no fear, because if God is on our side we shouldn’t fear. But we need to be responsible for our own actions in the world and can’t rely on God to fix things even if we have complete trust and no fear of God. Got that? Simultaneously we need to be fearful, trusting and courageous and take action into our own hands but leave everything to God. Is that it?

For me, the epitome of this amalgam of emotions and actions is the image of Abraham with his knife raised over Isaac, that moment in the Akedah when he is prepared to sacrifice his son at God’s request. He knew very well that to swing down would end his son’s life, yet he has complete trust in God. That agonizing moment just before any movement of the knife he must have been living all those emotions of fear and courage and trust in that same crazed mix that Torah demands of us. The razor’s edge that is the balance between all those values and commandments…and after all, God did send an angel to Abraham at the last moment.

Ok, if that is what Torah says and means, what do we think of it? How can we possibly have this quantum mechanic ability to maintain completely opposite positions at the same time? What is this idealized state of trust and fear balancing against one another?

In that characterization it doesn’t feel much different than all the other themes in Torah. We are always balancing darkness and light; male and female; kashrut and treyf; Shabbat and work; one God versus idols; destiny and free will; Egypt versus the promised land. All of our stories and lessons from Torah are about that cutting edge where all these things exist and don’t exist, all those places and moments where we are all and none.

The archetypal moment is of course Shabbat. The pause after and before everything. That space between that bridges us from trust to courage or from this world to the realm of the divine. Remember, God is not in the noise and rush of the storm on the mountain, but in that pause just after.

Do I really fear God? Do I really trust God? I am sure that at moments I have had both emotions held in limbo simultaneously, but the sad truth is that most of the time I am just working my way through the world and can neither fear nor love, neither trust nor think of God. Clearly Shabbat is important to me, I keep coming back erev and boker looking for some divine connection. What I find is respite from work, the pleasure of a Jewish community, a little learning and every now and then something divine. Maybe the moments in which we are simultaneously fearful and courageous, trusting and doubtful are meant to be few and fleeting. Perhaps instead, we are meant to keep working at it. The balance is found on the journey not at the destination.

The spies only got one chance and they focused on the wrong aspect—they only thought of the destination and forgot that God was on the journey with them. Unlike the spies, we get endless chances to reach out and find those magic, fleeting moments when we can be one with the divine, or even just one with a fellow traveler. This Shabbat, let’s not be spies feeling like grasshoppers with giants ready to crush us. Instead, let’s see if we can take one moment of trust, or one moment of courage and turn it into something divine, our own personal promised land without fear. 

Shabbat Shalom.