Turning Fear into Awe

Drashah 2023/5784: From Days of Fear to Days of Awe

Kol Haolam kulo, gesher tzar me’od v’haikar lo lefahed clal…the
whole world is a narrow bridge, and the essence is not to be afraid…(R’ Nahman)

Welcome to The Yamim Noraim. The Days of Awe. Days of gratitude for life, for love, for the earth, and for the potential within us to see beyond our pain and suffering and to work our way home to a healthier, more forgiving, more whole version of ourselves. Days of heightened spiritual awareness, intense worship and ritual pageantry as we evaluate and refine the course we’ve charted for our future. Awesome days, indeed.

It’s a complex word: “Noraim”, from the Hebrew “yir’ah. It means both awe and fear. In fact, “Yamim Noraim”, a term found neither in the Torah nor in the Talmud, was chosen for this season by medieval rabbis during a time of persecution, when instead of joy at the gift of another new year, people felt vulnerable. Many of us feel vulnerable this year, too.

We fear the re-emergence of extreme nationalism, bigotry, and Anti-Semitism. We fear the loss of civil discourse, of moral leadership, of strong democracies. We fear for the future of the State of Israel. We fear the wave of mental illness, anxiety and depression that is overwhelming our young people. We fear the intrusion of technology into our relationships and the threat of AI to a trusting and honest society (no chat GPT did not write this sermon). We fear the vulnerability of our planet and the viability of the future of the human race.  We still fear the ongoing threat of nuclear war. When it comes to this season of righting our wrongs, we often fear our own and each other’s capacity and willingness to do the hard work.

Fear may be reasonable in certain circumstances and often motivates us to act, but fear unchecked can lead us to behave poorly, and often, to behave dangerously.

Let’s use these days of introspection to try and find our way back from Yamim Noraim of fear to Yamim Noraim of awe; to help transform our culture of alarm into one of hope.

In 2016 the renowned U Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum released her book, The Monarchy of Fear. She explores the roots of the culture of fear, its branches of anger and envy, and guides us to reclaim optimism and love. While her book doesn’t explain every crisis we’re facing today and while we can’t generalize when it comes to the many hotspots around the globe, it gives us a lot to think about.

Most importantly, Nussbaum reminds us that the time for which so many are nostalgic - a time that was easier, more peaceful - likely never existed. Every country is a work in progress. Our social contracts, just like our marriages and friendships, are constantly evolving. To persist in a state of alarm not only exaggerates our current problems, but it makes them much more threatening. Most urgent is the work of staying the course of partnering together towards a better future.

None of us is born into a living democracy; we’re all born into monarchies in the making. As infants, fearing our helplessness, we figure out that by crying we’ll get all our needs met (food, a nap, a diaper change), until we gain enough consciousness and maturity to build relationships of reciprocity; where others are acknowledged for their separate feelings and needs and are appreciated as being more than people who serve us.

Child psychologists teach how important it is for parents to provide a loving, stable home in order to nurture a child toward moral adulthood. But what kind of society should we be building if we want adults to live in respectful, empathic relationships? 

The challenge is that our fear of vulnerability, discovered at the beginning of life, remains a lifelong feature of our psychology. And feeling powerless can lead to dangerous choices.

To secure our own safety, we often deny the safety others are also seeking, and equate happiness with our own happiness and that of our clan. We may misunderstand or overestimate the dangers that threaten us. We may be soothed by the rhetoric of leaders who promise to protect us. We may think that if we can banish reminders of what frightens us we’ll be safer. In our primal need to control our environment we may insist on a world that follows certain rules so that when disaster strikes we can blame others for our own misfortune as if there’s a logical explanation for our pain. When frightened we can get angry and resentful and even call for retribution. But as Gandhi is known to have said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Still, anything is better than feeling helpless, right?

Fear leads us to demonize in others -- in individuals and in groups -- what we fear in ourselves: our mortality, our physicality, our sexuality. We demonize in others what we doubt in ourselves: our authenticity, our credibility, our capability. We express disgust at them, “othering” them so as to protect, and preserve, ourselves. We do this to people who look different, who love differently, who vote differently.

Fearing our ability to achieve all we seek, we become envious of others who have what we want and allow ourselves to feel marginalized by other people’s success. Insecure in ourselves, our envy morphs into accusations: they don’t deserve what they have.

Fear threatens the moral basis for democracy which asks us to live in reciprocal, respectful relationships with others. There are things to fear in a democracy, Nussbaum acknowledges, even in ours which by and large works, albeit imperfectly: fear of violence, of unmaintained roads and bridges, fear of losing our freedoms - as a woman and a member of the LGBTQ community who lives partly in the US, that fear has come true. But if we live terrified for the future of democracy itself, we’ll likely end up engaging in behaviour that seeks to control and disenfranchise, building a monarchy of fear under those who would promote themselves king through the forceful demoting of anyone different to them. 

There are few people in this world who are purely evil in their desire to hurt others. Most often when someone does hurt us it’s because they’re in pain. This obviously can’t explain all that is wrong in our world, but the well-known link between suffering and aggression does figure in the calculus of our challenges, and in the solutions we’re here to contemplate. Can it move us to react to one another with less fear and more love? Less cynicism and more compassion?

In one of the more useful reflections on the crisis in Israel, Yossi Klein HaLevi of the Shalom Hartman Institute where I’m also proud to serve as a faculty member, reminds us of how delicate an ecosystem Israeli society is, one that requires constant balancing. In a recent essay he explains that this is “the inevitable result of a nation built on ‘the ingathering of the exiles,’ the biblical term that refers to the profoundly complicated process of creating a nation out of a hundred Diasporas, with their vastly disparate experiences and ideas of the meaning of Jewish identity and a Jewish state. For Israel to remain a minimally coherent society, it must accommodate all those ideologies and ways of life. Go too far in one direction and you risk alienating a substantial segment of the population from the national ethos.”

And, of course, regardless of your politics, this fragile ecosystem includes the 20% of citizens who identify as Arab Israelis and almost 5 million Palestinians. 

As Yossi explains, almost every part of the ecosystem today feels unheard, unseen, and unsafe. Without suggesting a moral equivalency between each of these claims, the reality is that Ashkenazim, Mizrachim, Haredim, those who are Dati-Leumi, settlers, peace activists, progressive Jews, secular Jews, women, the poor, the middle class, Arabs, Palestinians  – every element in Israel is in a moment of deep grievance over the parts of their stories that they feel remain ignored. Those in power today - wielding it with unprecedented, unconscionable aggression - are, on some level, doing so less out of their convictions in the truth of their positions and more out of their fears of being marginalized. 

And as a result, this government has put us at risk like never before in Israel’s 75 year history. They have forgotten, and some are willfully ignoring, that, as Yossi put it, “Israeli security isn’t only a matter of toughness and posturing. It depends on a complex web that includes national solidarity, a strong economy and civil service, confidence in the competence and judgment of our leaders, moral legitimacy of the IDF among our allies, trust among legal authorities abroad that Israel will monitor itself without intervention from the International Court in the Hague. This government threatens every one of those essential preconditions of our self-defense.” Acting out of fear, they foment ever more fear among their people.

It’s terrifying to think of the IDF losing its military edge given the neighborhood it works in. Sadly, these internal threats are not new. In an article entitled “The IDF and the Israeli Spirit” by Moshe Yaalon, former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, written six months before the war with Hezbollah erupted in July of 2006, Yaalon described how dynamics particular to Israeli society challenge the IDF: wide economic disparity between rich and poor soldiers; the continued exemption of certain religious communities from military service, political corruption, and the tendency in Israel to demonize “the other”, to name a few.

But what he described as the single greatest threat to Israel’s ability to defend itself is even more frightening.  That threat, Yaalon suggested, was the self-doubt that was taking root in the hearts and minds of Israelis, self doubt fueled by internal mistrust of one another and concerns about the integrity of the Zionist project itself. The current ultra-nationalist government, beholden to fundamentalist, chauvinistic, and self-serving demands, has only deepened that doubt, undermined the commitment of IDF soldiers, and further imperiled the physical and moral safety of our beloved homeland. I don’t say this lightly on the Day of Judgement: such recklessness is bordering on being unforgivable.

Many fear the growing alienation of our children from Zionism. In response, Jewish schools often double down on teaching kids to love Israel uncritically, avoiding engagement with the complexities we noted earlier. That hardly prepares them for college and the real world where they inevitably confront those complexities and respond with either an unsophisticated, uninformed - and often unsustainable-  defense of Israel, or a tragic rejection of it.

 In an OpEd last week in the Jewish Forward, Ary Hammerman, a teenager in one of the NY area Jewish day schools, publicly pleaded for her teachers to teach her and her peers a different, more nuanced story about the country where she was born and loves, the Israel she knows contains more than one narrative about one people. She wrote, “Jewish educators must find a way to marry a love of the idea of Israel with an exploration of multiple perspectives of the different people in the land…My family has an apartment in the French Hill neighborhood of Jerusalem. When I look out its living room window, I see the Dome of the Rock, multiple synagogues and a Palestinian refugee camp. I wonder whether my Jewish day school will ever teach me the history of each of those locations, and [about] the lens through which they would be taught.

Our kids are asking us not to be afraid. To teach them from courage. To prepare them for life not from a place of pessimism, but of possibility.

Even the climate crisis strains our ability to see beyond our fear toward respectful conversation and collaboration between stakeholders. Climate anxiety is a growing trend. According to researchers at Yale, the number of people alarmed about climate change has tripled in the last 6 years alone. But at the same time, those who resist leaning into climate activism are often also negotiating fear: fear of change to their lifestyles that climate activism might demand; and fear of change to their jobs and livelihoods as economies convert to more sustainable models. But instead of isolating in our own echo chambers, can we learn to talk and listen with empathy and with humility, even as we carry a sense of urgency?

How do you find a way of talking to someone on the other side of a divide while still leaving them with their dignity? How can we talk to each other not as enemies, not as opponents, not as competitors, not as rivals, but as messy, complicated human beings, as people struggling for our freedoms, fearing for our futures? When we’re put off by something someone says or does, rather than succumb to the instinct to vilify and reject them, can we come closer and engage them in conversations, even difficult ones, to try to understand them better and to recover some shared values, or at least some shared goals?

It’s hard enough to do this with people we know, people in our own circles, with whom we have differences. What about with people we don’t know, whose lives and values seem vastly different from our own?  

Rabbi Reuven Bulka once explained the famous rabbinic line:  דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת/Judge all individuals charitably to mean more than me giving people a chance. It means remembering, with humility, that not everyone’s blessed with the same opportunities as me, with the same education or family or community as me. It’s my responsibility to use my blessings to try to understand people better, and to make room in my judgment of the world for those who may come from a very different place than I do, or who may have much less than I do to work with when building a relationship with others. 

During these Yamim Noraim, rather than resort to fear, can we find a way back towards one another in recognition of each other’s humanity, try to understand each other more and hope for a more promising future? 

Prof. Nussbaum teaches that fear and hope are actually related: both involve a certain amount of uncertainty regarding an outcome that’s important to us. Both reflect a certain lack of control. But where fear focuses on the potential negative outcome, hope concentrates on the potential good. Where fear retreats backwards, hope surges forward. Where fear is self-protective, hope is vulnerable. Where fear tries to control others, hope trusts them to be themselves. Where fear contracts and tenses the heart, hope expands it. Most importantly, hope inspires work and engagement with the issues. Despair is incompatible with forward-focused action.

It’s instinctive to fear change. As parents, when our children express interest in new paths in life, or disinterest in the ones we’ve painstakingly and lovingly paved for them, many respond by clamping down harder and trying to force compliance. That rarely works out well. It’s harder, to be sure, but it’s often more rewarding when we reimagine our parental roles and learn to trust our children to unfold into the people they’re destined to become -- people worthy of our love and respect. 

When rabbis offer newly imagined traditions or rituals to make our tents wider and more inclusive -- whether of LGBTQ individuals or people from other religions and cultures who are now part of our families and communities, or inclusive of urgent concerns for justice or for the environment -- it’s easy to retreat into despair over a changing Judaism or a more diverse Jewish people, and to close the gate. It’s more difficult and more threatening, but also more authentic, to trust in the ongoing unfolding of our Jewish heritage and our Jewish purpose in the world - just as we have for 4000 years - and to make Jewish choices about our future not from distress but from hope, not from fear, but from faith, keeping Judaism relevant and resonant for each generation.

Our goals have to be realistic, not idealistic. They have to be achievable by human beings with all our limitations. We can’t expect a perfect society any more than anyone of us can expect a perfect marriage or friendship, but one where real, tangible progress in terms of bringing people together for productive dialogue and collaboration is possible. Dr. King didn’t expect people of all colors to agree on everything, just that they be able to sit down together and talk and show each other small, daily acts of human kindness. That begins by seeing people with whom we differ as fully human, capable of doing good, and even of growth and transformation. Rosh Hashanah is a Jewish holiday of transformation, believing as we do that every human being, no matter how broken or blemished, no matter how troubled or troubling, is imbued with the power of change. 

In his essay, Yossi Klein HeLvi, a journalist who’s built his career and his reputation on being able to talk to those from whom he’s divided - culturally, politically, religiously - he confessed that most distressing to him in this current crisis is the hardening of his heart toward his fellow citizens. Restoring our trust in our adversaries and in their ability to work with us for change just might be our heaviest teshuvah lift this year.

As we consider the changes we want to make in our lives, remember this: Hope is more than a feeling; it’s a lifestyle. Prof. Nussbaum ends her book with concrete lifestyle advice, what she calls “practices of hope”:

  1. Engage with the arts -- theater, music, museums. Join your eyes with others to behold and to be moved, and to collectively contribute to the canvas of awe and appreciation that we ought to be painting together.

  2. Dialogue with ideas different from your own with those who espouse them. Nussbaum makes a point of co-teaching courses with one of U Chicago’s most conservative scholars to model for students what engaging in learning that crosses political and social divides can look like so we don’t just silence the ideas that make us uncomfortable. In today’s climate, attending public lecture series that do the same is not a matter of leisure; it’s our civic responsibility. 

  3. Join a spiritual community where shared values motivate us to relate to human beings with awe, not fear, and inspire us to work collaboratively with others beyond our community for the wellbeing of all humanity. I hope you find that here at SZBE, and with me in different classes and adventures I hope you’ll join me for, and in the other communal spaces you cherish.  

  4. Be an activist. Whether local or national, bringing people together around issues that matter to them is a crucial way of stemming despair, of reducing fear, and of strengthening hope. Just look at how the massive weekly demonstrations across Israel have fueled a movement committed to a peaceful and democratic future for the State. The words we opened with, Kol Haolam kulo, gesher tzar me’od v’haikar lo lefahed clal…the whole world is a narrow bridge, and the essence is not to be afraid, is one of the anthems heard over and over at the protests.

  1. Organize robust public conversations with thought leaders from across the disciplines about what a healthy democracy looks like - not just about the rights of citizenship, but also about what the responsibilities and opportunities of citizenship should look like.

  2. As a final pitch in her plan for hope, Nussbaum advocates for a year of national service for all young citizens in communities different from their own so as to put faces onto the issues that divide us and make us the objects of each other’s fear and suspicion -- issues of class, race, education, economics, sexuality, religion and culture. This would also prepare young adults to assume the reins of leadership with a much deeper degree of empathy, understanding, and humility when it’s their turn to lead us towards our future.

Today is the first day of the Yamim Noraim. Whether they will remain days of fear, or be transformed into days of awe lies in our hands. In our hearts. In our words. In our choices. Will we continue to live from fear, or will we live from hope? Will our actions be informed by our despair over the future, or our trust in it? After all, the awesomeness of these days of awe is that we can face our pain and fear of loss, conflict, war, illness, tragedy, and failure and recommit ourselves to healing, to repair and to renewal.

So, in the words of Marge Piercy: "Go [now] with empty hands to those you have hurt and make amends. It is not too late. It is early and about to grow. Now is the time to do what you know you must and have feared to begin."

Welcome to The Yamim Noraim.

Kol Haolam kulo, gesher tzar me’od v’haikar lo lefahed clal…the whole world is a narrow bridge, and the essence is not to be afraid…(R’ Nahman)